By whose authority?

Sermon 27th September 2020, St John the Baptist, Clayton
16th Sunday after Trinity: Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-end & Matthew 21:23-32

This morning, the overarching theme of our readings is the question of authority and responsibility. I would like to pick out two specific questions that our readings set before us. Firstly, from the reading of Ezekiel: can we be held responsible for the acts of previous generations? And secondly, from our Gospel reading: by whose authority do we act?

So let’s look at that first question first: how much responsibility can we take for the actions of others, particularly those of our ancestors? It is a relevant question now, as much as it was for the people in ancient Israel, albeit for different reasons, I suspect.

The Israelites had a proverb, we read: “The parents have eaten sours grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge”. It talks about the idea that children will be punished for the sins of their parents. Now, through the words of the Prophet Ezekiel, God says that this proverb should no longer be used: it is only the person who sins that shall die.

Jesus, when he heals the sight of a blind man as recorded in John’s Gospel, goes even a step further when He says: “Neither this man, nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him”. He makes it clear that there is no direct relationship between sin and physical, or indeed mental, illness.

However, we also know from the book of Exodus, where God reveals the Ten Commandments to Moses, that he will “punish children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and fourth generation of those who reject me.” So where does that leave us? How can we think about the relationships between our wrongdoings and the effects they have on us?

Remembering Jesus’ words at the healing of the blind man, we see that there is very little theological ground for making a direct link between someone’s predicament and the sins that they have committed. Not only is it theologically unsound, but also it can cause great hurt to blame someone’s illness on themselves. Yes, a healthy lifestyle – physically, mentally and spiritually – will benefit us, but doesn’t mean that we are immune to any type of illness. We need to take responsibility for our wellbeing, but yet, there are things out of our immediate control.

Neither do we control the place and time in which we are born: we cannot choose our ancestry. However, we can choose how much we are willing to learn from them, not least from the mistakes they have made. This observation should lie at the heart of the changes for which our Black Lives Matter movement is currently calling.

We cannot undo the past. The ancestors of many of us here will in some way have benefitted from the slave-trade, from the unfair treatment of others, and we cannot undo that. What we can do though, is learn from it, so that we do not end up doing the same. We have a choice how we treat others, what products we buy and how we share our wealth. Our apology should lie in the way we choose to live our lives now, not in paying lip-service to the past.

That brings us to the parable at the end of our Gospel reading. Which of the two sons did the will of his father? The one who did what was right. Let us go back for a moment to the beginning of the reading from Matthew this morning, where the leaders of the religious establishment question the authority of Jesus by asking him: “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” By whose authority do we act?

Just as our previous question of responsibility, also the question of authority is as relevant today as it was two-thousand years ago. Who could have imagined a year ago, that being in a group of more than six people could mean a £1000 fine? Or that being in a restaurant after 10pm has become illegal? And how can a government decide who I can invite to my house? By what authority are they doing this?

It is a question many of us will have asked ourselves over the past few months. Is it the scientific evidence that gives our government the authority to make those decisions? And if not, what is it? Is the government’s authority undermined if some of their representatives do not obey their own laws, or should we not judge the collective by the individual? These are big questions, and we will hopefully be able to discuss them at the supper table again soon. For us as Christians, there is another question underlying this debate. That is, do we believe – or trust – that our leaders are in place by God’s authority?

Throughout the centuries, there has been a tension in Christianity between challenging and obeying the authorities. Between Jesus overthrowing the tables in the temple and Paul’s admonition to the Romans to obey the governing authorities, for – as he writes – “there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God”.

Thinking about this tension, we may find ourselves in a similar situation as the chief priests and the elders in our reading. We realise that we can’t really answer the question: what is the origin of our government’s authority? Do we agree with Paul that it is God-given? Or do we feel that we need to challenge at least some of the policies, particularly when they seem to disadvantage even more those who already struggle?

Maybe also here, we can take as an example the son in the parable. The one who changed his mind and went to work in his father’s vineyard. For us as well, our actions can speak louder than our words. So maybe instead of just asking what our government can do to help those on minimum wage, we can support those we know to be struggling. There is no law against generosity.

Challenging questions this morning, for all of us. And difficult to not see them in the light of our current political climate. However, in the end, it all boils down to the answer of the question: “Which of the two did the will of his father?” “The first”: the one who changed his mind and went to work in the vineyard. So let us go, and do the work that God is asking of us. Because the harvest is plenty, but the labourers are few.

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