- Either individually or as a group, brainstorm a list of everyone in your life who can legitimately tell you what to do. Try to be specific.
- Why do you end up doing what these individuals and groups say? Are there different reasons in each case? Which ones do you believe or follow or obey because they can make consequences happen to you, and which ones do you believe or follow or obey because you are convinced they are right or you just trust them?
- Another way of coming at the same question: what is the difference between power and authority?
Two high-profile public trials have recently ended: On Sept. 4, former Virginia governor Bob McDonnell and his wife Maureen were convicted on charges of corruption after accepting money, gifts, and loans from businessman Jonnie Williams in exchange for special access to government favors. Then on Sept. 12, South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius was acquitted of premeditated murder but convicted for reckless homicide in the shooting death of his girlfriend. And in a different sort of case, half-brothers Henry McCollum and Leon Brown were recently released after more than thirty years in prison because newly presented DNA evidence showed that they were not guilty of raping and murdering an 11-year old girl in 1983.
All of these legal decisions were made because someone – a judge or a jury – decided who was telling the truth and judged whether testimony matched the evidence. Even in the example of the DNA proof, which we usually think settles the matter, someone had to decide whether to accept it. All three cases and so many others highlight at least two things: 1) the challenge of figuring out whether someone should be trusted when they speak, and 2) the question of who has the authority to make decisions like this. In both cases, we wonder where that authority comes from.
Each of us has to make these kinds of decisions every day – decisions as to whom we should trust and on what basis. The more trustworthy the source, the more likely we are to believe it. The closer the speaker is to the information, the more easily we can trust it. If we are suspicious about something we hear, the first words out of our mouths are likely to be “Who says?”
- In these news items authority depends on testimony being trustworthy and knowledgeable. Why do we believe what God says or has said? Why do we trust what the scriptures say about God? Why believe what our pastors say about God and the world? Is it only because of what others have told us about living life with God or also because of things that we have experienced?
- In the midst of life’s challenges and doubts, how do we continue to listen to Jesus when he speaks and trust that he has the authority to do so? What are the patterns and habits we can practice that will strengthen our trust in him, especially when faced with those who would say he was a liar or a fake?
(Text links are to Oremus Bible Browser. Oremus Bible Browser is not affiliated with or supported by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. You can find the calendar of readings for Year C at Lectionary Readings.)
For lectionary humor and insight, check the weekly comic Agnus Day.
This passage is one of several in the gospels where the religious leaders challenge Jesus concerning whether he should be allowed to teach people about God and their lives in God’s kingdom. It also reflects the remarks of Jesus’ hearers (Mark 1:22 / Matthew 7:29 ), who say he speaks “with authority” in contrast to their own religious leaders. In other words, when they listen to Jesus, it sounds like he has first-hand knowledge of the subject of God and life with God! He knows what he’s talking about and isn’t merely repeating things he has heard or surrendering to conventional wisdom just because that’s what had always been taught.
Time and time again, the people hear Jesus zeroing in on the core of what it means to experience the kingdom of God. Jesus’ teaching strikes them not only as reliable, but also as offering something missing from the way they had been taught to understand and serve God. The political and social pressures on the Jewish leaders of Jesus’ day often forced them to give primary attention to stabilizing their relationship with the Roman Empire and fixing the boundaries of their religious community. No matter how much they hoped to lead the people into an authentic faith in God, it took Jesus, the Messiah and the Son of God, to bring them into God’s own saving love. It is good news for us that Jesus lives and continues to be present to us through faith, so that we to can follow his leadership into God’s kingdom regardless of what other distractions may come our way.
This text comes from the last week of Jesus’ life. He has just come into Jerusalem to cheering crowds (21:1-11), cleared the temple of merchants and money-changers (21:12-13), begun healing the blind and lame (21:14-17), and taught about the power of faith (21:18-22). In the midst of all these activities, he was headed toward his arrest and execution just a couple of days later. So we see him speaking to the religious leaders in very stark terms about how things will soon change and why. He first exposes their commitment to political, rather than faith and life, concerns with his question about John the Baptist. Then he uses the parable of the two sons to lift up that God’s grace, which draws very unlikely people into God’s kingdom, will soon win the day over their political approach. This is more good news for us, allowing us to stop yielding to the temptation to draw lines between “the righteous” and “the sinful.” We can welcome anyone who seeks God because God invites all into the kingdom.
- In the gospels, some who were utterly convinced that Jesus had authority to teach God’s truth liked what they were learning about God from Jesus, but balked when he called on them to align with the purposes of God’s gracious love. Are there things that Jesus calls us to do or to be which might make us unhappy rather than joyful about his authority over us as his followers? (If you need help, consider Matthew 5-7, the instructions for the church in Matthew 18, or his commandment to evangelize the world in Matthew 28). What are the hard things in those lists that might make us turn to Jesus and ask “Who says?”
- When we receive challenges to the Christian faith, how can we have conversations with others that will let us know if they are perhaps truly curious about our faith and secretly wishing we could convince them that it is true?
- Why do you think that Jesus did not just give the religious leaders a straightforward answer about who he was and that he was both the promised Messiah and the Son of God? [We have to speculate, but some possibilities are: 1) There were lots of prophets and other self-proclaimed messiahs running around who claimed to be God’s chosen one; just saying so would prove nothing. 2) Even if Jesus proved himself to them, he knew that they would use that information for their own political and social benefit (see his long criticism of them in Matthew 23) to exclude even more those whom they decided did not measure up. 3) Jesus knew that they were not really asking him this question honestly and so instead turned the challenge back on them]
- Does the parable that follows Jesus’ conversation with the religious leaders (21:28-32) sound like it could come from your life? Have you ever behaved like either one of the sons in the parable? When we share faith with others or invite them to experience the joy of our church, which response would we rather get – an insincere yes from someone who has no intention of following through, or a cold reception from someone who ends up being devoted to Christ and his teachings?
- To experience what it’s like to see if someone is telling the truth, try a variation on the game “two truths and a lie.” The original game divides the group into two teams and they take turns having one of their own members tell the other team three things about him/herself, one of which is a lie, and the other team has to figure out which one it is. In a revised version, the whole team has to come up with two statements about something any one of them has actually *seen* or *heard* firsthand (e.g., they’re going to tear up the interstate again, some famous musician has a new video up on YouTube, so-and-so dyed her hair blue, etc.) and then a third statement regarding something they only heard about but did not see firsthand. The other team then has to figure out which one is second-hand information. As the game goes on, start asking groups to include statements that might be considered matters of opinion, but some hold as very true and important! What happens then?
- Play a round of “telephone,” and at the end ask the group who would need to be asked in order to find out the original message. The obvious answer is the person who came up with the original message. Then the group can get a sense of how likely it would be that 1) God’s message might get distorted over time until Jesus came along and 2) why the religious leaders might actually have a good reason to care about where Jesus got his information.
- Have three people role play the conversation between the father and the two sons in the parable and try to imagine what they would say to each other as each one of them is trying to prove that s/he is right. Other members of the group should yell suggestions for things to say. In a society like the one of Jesus’ day, where obedience to parents was a huge deal with a lot at stake, how might each of them reacted?
God of all truth and ruler of our lives, soften our hearts and minds with the ministry of your Spirit, that we may trust you for everything, be ready to receive your word with gladness, and open ourselves up to the real and powerful thrill that comes with living life close to you. Guide us through the teachings of our Lord Jesus and help those who doubt him or care only for earthly things to turn to him, even though they have refused once or even many times. In his name we pray.