Holy Tuesday: By What Authority?
Matthew 21:19-22New International Version (NIV)
19 Seeing a fig tree by the road, he went up to it but found nothing on it except leaves. Then he said to it, “May you never bear fruit again!” Immediately the tree withered.(A)
20 When the disciples saw this, they were amazed. “How did the fig tree wither so quickly?” they asked.
21 Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt,(B) not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done. 22 If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for(C) in prayer.”
Today’s biblical story is a parable about judgment and authority. Put it in its context. The religious leaders came to Jesus asking him some questions. They want to know if he was the real deal. They want to know if his ministry was genuine or counterfeit. “By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “Who gave you the right to do what you are doing?” Jesus responds by telling them a story—a parable about judgment.
The story goes like this: One day a wealthy land owner purchased a prime piece of property on which he planted a beautiful vineyard. He took lavish care of this vineyard, building a fence and watchtower to protect it. Then one day the owner was called out of the country on business and he entrusted his vineyard into the watch-care of some tenants.
A good deal of time went by—and the tenants enjoyed the fruits of the landowner’s vineyard. We must remember, however, that this wasn’t their vineyard! They hadn’t planned it, planted plant it, purchase it, or improve it. They had simply enjoyed its benefits. Finally the time came for the tenants to pay the rent. The vineyard’s owner sends one of his servants to collect what was due!
The tenants were furious. They had come to think of the vineyard as their property. They began to think of as owner rather than caretakers. Resenting the arrival of the land owner’s servant, they shamefully they beat him and send him packing. A second servant was dispatched to collect the rent. He received the same despicable treatment. Finally the owner figures that if he sends his own son they certainly will show proper respect and pay the rent. The land owner was mistaken. The tenants not only beat the son, they also kill him.
Next Jesus asks his accusers a question: “What do you think the owner of the vineyard will do to those tenets?”
This is an interesting parable. It is offered by Jesus in response to a question about his authority. “By what authority do you do these things?” the religious leaders asked Jesus. “Who gave you the right to preach? Who gave you the right to teach? Who gave you the right to heal and perform miracles?” What Jesus does by telling this parable is turn their questions around and throw them right back in the face of his accusers. Its not his authority that should be questioned, but theirs! While the vineyard of Israel belonged to God, the religious elite of Jesus’ day had come to think of themselves as the owners of the vineyard, rather than its tenants. They had ignore the warnings of God’s servants the prophets. Now they were rejecting the authority of God own son.
Two thousand years ago, when Jesus first told this parable, it was heard as a polemic against the religious leaders in the synagogue. Today—if we are to be honest—it must be read as a challenge to the church. You see we are now the “tenants” of the vineyard. The church has been entrusted with the gospel. We did not cultivate this gospel. We are tenants, not landowners. This parable must be read as a harsh warning about impending judgment if we fail to remember whose we are and to whom we belong.
Let’s ask ourselves some difficult questions today. By whose authority do we do the things we do? By whose authority do we gather? By whose authority do we worship? By whose authority do we evangelize? By whose authority do we minister? By whose authority do we send missionaries? Under what authority are we here this morning as a part of this congregation?
Its really quite sad how little we ask ourselves these types of questions, isn’t it? I know its true in my own life, as a pastor. I rarely ask myself these types of questions. When confronted with some sort of problem in the church my first temptation is to ask myself, “What will the congregation think?” “What will the folks at the business meeting say?” “What will the deacons think?” “What will the church council say?” What I rarely ask myself is this: “What does God want to see happening in my life?”
It happens for all of us from time to time, doesn’t it? The time come for us to plan the ministry and outreach of the church and what do we do? We make plans, develop programs, and instituted ministries. Then we gather in a worship service to plead for God to bless our work. We pray after the fact. We ask God to bless our efforts rather than guide them!
Do you see what I am saying? Sometimes we are all guilty of acting as if the church was our possession! We gather together at business meeting and planning sessions to ask, “What do we want to do next?” We’ve got is all twisted around. The very first thing we ought to be doing is asking ourselves the questions: “What does the Lord require?” “What does God want us to do?”
This is not only true for how we view the church, but also for how we view our own individual lives. Too often we think of ourselves as masters of our own destiny. We consider ourselves to be self-made men and women. Like Frank Sinatra our motto is: “I did it my way!” That’s not the way it should be for those of us who are Christians. When we become Christian we are pledging to do something more than simply believe something about Jesus. We are pledging to follow Jesus. We are declaring him to be our Lord. We are acknowledging ourselves to be God’s vineyard.
Now there is certainly no doubt that this story is a parable of judgment. At the end of the parable Jesus says that if the tenants forget who owns the land, it will be taken from them and given to others. But before we delve into this aspect of the parable, however, let us examine if this story might not also contain some good news. Let us examine if this parable might not also be a story of grace—at least for those who know on whose land they reside.
A couple of months a fellow pastor suggested one of the most freeing lessons I’ve learned about the ministry. She said: “It’s not our job as pastors to make the church turn out alright, since the church is not our possession. Our job as a pastor is to be as faithful as we can with what we have!” That’s not just a good lesson for pastors, that’s a good lesson for all of us who want to be followers of Jesus. To quote T.S. Eliot, “For there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.”
For me this is a message of grace. The pastor can’t keep the church going. Neither can the deacons, the WMU, the church council, Sunday School teachers, or wealthy and influential contributors. This is not our church. This is God’s church. It is only on loan to us from the one who created it and paid for it with the death of his Son. This church is gathered today under the authority of God, not through our earnest efforts. This is good news. This is the grace. This is the message that should cause us to take heart. The church is not all left up to us. This is God’s church and God’s ministry. We are God’s people—His possession. For those of us who understand and act accordingly, this is a parable of tremendous grace.
And yet there is no sidestepping the element of judgment. You see sometimes we don’t acts accordingly. Sometimes we act like this is our church rather than God’s. When this happens there is judgment! The parable ends by Jesus asking, “Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?”
This story contains a dire word of warning for the church. Jesus said that the unfaithful tenants would be punished and that the landowner would “lease the vineyard to other tenants.”
William Willimon, Dean of the Chapel at Duke University, tells the story of a friend, a Methodist seminary professor, who visited a California university town one summer were he was teaching a course. After he and his family entered the community they passed by a large, impressive Methodist church building.
“We’ll go to that church on Sunday,” the man said to his family.
On Sunday they all got up, got dressed, and walked a few blocks to the church building. As they neared the structure, they could hear music—loud music—complete with guitars and drums emanating from the neo-gothic building.
“What kind of church is this?” the man’s son asked.
“The sign says that it’s one of ours,” said the man. “You’ve got to remember that this is California. They do things a little different out here!”
A smiling usher greeted them at the door. When the door opened, they could see that the service had already begun. In the service there was a band in full swing. People were clapping, smiling, and swaying to the music. The congregation was made up of all ages and the colors of the rainbow. When the pastor spoke members of the congregation would shout “Amen!” “Praise God!” or “Hallelujah!”
“Is this a Methodist Church?” the man asked the usher.
“Oh, no,” said the usher. “We just rent the sanctuary from the Methodist Church. Please let me take you to the Methodist Church.”
The usher took the family around the corner of the building to a small chapel were a very small group of mostly older people were gathered plodding through a traditional morning worship service.
On the way back home, as they made their way through a sidewalk that was filled with folks after the larger worship service, the seminary professor looked back at the throng of people from all nations, races, and ages and then said to his family, “This was the Methodist Church!”
If this church is not responsive to God’s voice—if we don’t remember that we are God’s people and that this is God’s church—then we run the risk that this vineyard might be given “to other tenants who will give God the produce at the harvest time”?