Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Reflections on Passion Week: Authority and the Parable of the Tenants

After Jesus cleansed the Temple, all the Synoptics record Jesus' authority being challenged (Mk. 11:27-33; Mt. 21:23-27; Lk. 20:1-8). We often focus on Jesus' actual response and neglect the nature of the question and the irony of the situation. The "chief priests, the teachers of the Law, and the elders" are all arrayed against Jesus, even though the different designations indicate different factions that would ordinarily be competing with one another. They challenge Jesus, not on the substance of what he has done (which would commit them to trying to justify the money changers and sacrifice sellers) but by what authority he presumes to challenge the system. The irony of the situation is clear: these groups claim institutional authority from God, but have been tolerating sinful and exploitative practices in the Temple complex; meanwhile Jesus, who actually posesses authority from God and has been using it to oppose their corrupt system, is being questioned on the basis of his authority to do so.

This irony is what allows Jesus to dismiss their question without answering it: his authority derives from the same source as that of John the Baptist, also an outsider rejected by the Jewish authorities. What he and John were doing--calling people to repentence, challenging a corrupt religious system--itself attests to the authority by which they were doing it. The situation is analogous to the one in which the disciples stopped a man who had been driving out demons in Jesus' name (Mk. 9:38-40), "because he was not one of us." It should give us pause, when we're tempted to challenge the authority of someone to act, when we can't actually oppose the action itself.

Jesus responds with the Parable of the Tenants (Mk. 12:1-12; Lk. 20:9-19; Mt. 21:33-46--actually in Matthew, Jesus responds with three parables that increasingly develop the same theme). A landowner rents his vinyard out to tenants and goes away on a journey. Later, he sends servants back to collect the fruit due him. The tenants abuse or kill the servants; lastly, the landowner sends his son, who should have been respected more than any of the servants; instead, the tenants kill him, specifically because he is the heir and they hope to gain the vinyard for themselves.

Aside from the clear allegorical features, this is specifically a parable about authority. Who, specifically, has authority from the landowner--the tenants or the servants? They both have a kind of delegated authority. The tenants have the authority to work the land and produce as much fruit as they can, as well as not to give it to just anyone who comes along. But the servants, and preeminently, the son, have the authority to take from them what is due to the landowner, and it is that authority that the servants challenge. They have forgotten that it is the landowner's field, and greedily covet it for themselves. In doing so, they bring down judgment on themselves, and those who have challenged Jesus' authority clearly understand that Jesus has turned the tables, challenging their authority and placing them under judgment. While the crowds may still be with Jesus, all of their leaders are now firmly opposed to him. It's the priests against the prophets: do you side with those who have all the institutional authority, or with the guy who comes out of nowhere, claims to be speaking for God, and challenging the status quo? It's a tougher decision than many of us would like to admit.

When we have been given a place of service, one of the hardest things to do is to remember that the service still belongs to the Lord. We speak of "our" church and "our" ministry as a descriptor of association: it is the one that we give our service to. But it is too easy for "our" or "my" to become a possessive: the one that in some sense we think we own. We need to recall that any place of ministry that we have is actually God's, and whatever success we attain is also God's. If we don't, we challenge His authority over "our" church and "our" ministry (or "our" home, "our" family, or "our" job, for that matter). And as the ending of Jesus' parable makes clear, that's not a position we want to put ourseves in.

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