Pentecost 16A: Promising an Open Future

Dear Partner in Preaching,

Can I give you some advice? Clear some time on your calendar next week for additional pastoral conversations with people. Because this Gospel reading, with its tussle over authority and deceptively tame parable, has the potential to really stir things up in the life and identity of your people.

On one important level, the topic at hand is authority, as the religious authorities challenge Jesus’ right to teach and preach, particularly in the Temple, and Jesus in turn reverses their challenge and ensnares them in their own trap. And certainly you could preach a whole sermon on the dramatic exchange here, how it fits in to the larger story of Jesus’ journey to the cross, and on the complex nature of authority. But to be honest, I think there’s essentially one thing we need to keep in mind about authority: it’s given. This is the primary difference between power – the sheer ability to do something or bring something about – and authority – when one’s ability to do, say, or make something derives from having been delegated or given that ability. Authority, in short, is power that has been given, directed, and limited to achieve a particular end.

This is the connection between authority and its linguistic siblings authorize and author. One has authority to do things because one has been authorized to do them by the author, the one with the actual power. Authority is always and only something given.

But authority is given in two ways. That is, not only is authority given by those “above” with the power, it’s just as often given by those “below” who decide to accept the authority of another. When I was a child, for instance, I remember a conversation with my dad where I told him that he was making me feel bad for not following through on something I said I’d do (sound familiar?). He responded by saying something that absolutely infuriated me in the moment: “I don’t have the power to make you feel anything. You’re in charge of your own feelings.” Now, truth be told, we try to make people feel things all the time, and maybe my dad really was trying to make me feel bad. But even granting that possibility, he was still absolutely right. He may have had authority to dish out consequences for my behavior, but he had no authority – unless I gave it to him – to make me feel bad.

And here’s the thing: in about 99% of the cases of our life, those with authority over us have it only because we give it to them. The colleague who slighted us, the child who disappointed us, even the spouse or parent who abandoned us – yes, in each case the person in question may have actually done something to harm us, even something catastrophic; nevertheless, the way we regard that action and person over time is something we get to determine. If we are still angry, hurt, disappointed, or upset, it’s because we have decided to give authority to that person or event to continue to influence and even dominate our lives. We may have been victimized, but we choose whether or not we will live as a victim.

It’s only against this background that I can make sense of the parable Jesus tells his interlocutors. I mean, what does this story of two sons have to do with authority in the traditional sense? Pretty much nothing. But it has everything to do with how we regard the past. One son says he’ll help out and doesn’t follow through – I sympathize. J The other son, however, is the focus of the parable. For he says he will not help, but does. Whatever may have motivated his initial response – he was already committed, he was feeling overwhelmed by prior obligations, he was annoyed that his father is always asking for help, he nursed a grudge about a time he felt his father didn’t help him, whatever – he recognizes that the future is always open. He can still respond to his father’s request and invitation, and as he does he proves himself faithful and lives into his father’s hopes for him.

At this pivotal moment in Matthew’s story about Jesus, and through this deceptively simple parable, Jesus is inviting his adversaries into an open future, one not dominated by the arguments and opposition of the past, but one that is open to the movement of God’s spirit to heal, revive, restore, and make all things new. The chief priests and elders do not accept this invitation. They have too much at stake in the past – it has created for them their primary identity and, whatever its limitations, they have become dependent on that identity – and so they refuse to trade that past for an open future. But those who are down and out, those who discover that the identity created by their past does not bring them life – represented here by “tax collectors and prostitutes,” two categories of people whose actions supposedly remove them beyond the pale of decent society – grab hold of Jesus’ promise with both hands.

And here’s the thing: Jesus makes this same promise to us. No matter what we have done, no matter what may have been done to us, the future is still open. Whatever hurt we may have experienced or done in the past is, ultimately, in the past. We do not have to allow it to determine or dominate our future. We do not have to drag our past on our back the way a snail does its shell. We are, finally, more than the sum total of all that has happened to us. The future is open. It may be hard – really, really hard – to let go of the past and walk into the future. The past, after all, we at least know, and even our dysfunctional identities are at least familiar, whereas the future is so open it can be scary. (Which is why, by the way, you’ll want to allow more time in the weeks ahead for pastoral conversations, so you can help people reckon with their past and accompany them as they walk into the open future Christ invites.)

Now, the temptation at this point will be to tilt the sermon toward the moment of decision: “the future is yours to grab hold” or, more crassly, “have you accepted Jesus into your heart and found eternal life?” And certainly we are invited to step into the open future God has created. But to tell you the truth, I don’t think the focus of this scene and parable is on us nearly as much as it is on God. God the author of all life who regularly decides to invite a new relationship with us. God who will not count our past deeds, mistakes, griefs, or hurts against us. God who refuses to define us by what we do (or what has been done to us), but instead regards us always and only as God’s beloved children.

So perhaps this week, Dear Partner, our task is to invite people to consider to whom or what they have given authority in a way that does not serve life. Perhaps we may dare to ask them to call to mind those elements of their past – those things they have done or have been done to them – that they most regret or resent…and invite them to let them go, to consign them to the past, to no longer give these past things authority over their lives and invite them to walk into an open future defined not by regrets, hurts, and resentments but instead by God’s promise to be with us and for us forever.

If so, then maybe it would make sense to move the confession and absolution that often opens our services to right here, just after the sermon, as in the absolution we hear God promising that the future is always open. Or maybe we can move from the sermon into an affirmation of Baptism, as it is in Baptism that we hear most clearly of God’s commitment to regard us as beloved children no matter what. Or maybe we can simply gather up all those hurts and regrets and offer them to God in a time of silent prayer, perhaps closing with words something like the following: “Dear God, we often allow things from our past to dominate our present and close off our future. But you have promised that you love us no matter what, and so we offer our hurts, regrets, and resentments to you, trusting that you already know them and love us anyway. Help us to believe about ourselves what you believe about us: that we are worthy of love and respect. And help us to treat others as you have treated us: as those who deserve love and respect. All this we ask in the name of Jesus, the one who died on the cross to show us the depth of your love. Amen.”

You’ll know best how to deliver this powerful word, Dear Partner, the word about God’s commitment to see us always and only as God’s beloved children. As you proclaim this good news – and walk with people into God’s good future in the days ahead – please know how grateful I am for your fidelity.

Yours in Christ,

Note: For those of you just finding this page, this is the space where I’ve continued to post my weekly reflections on the RCL texts (usually the Gospel reading) for preachers. If you are interested in having the reflections sent to your email, you can subscribe in the box toward the top of the right hand side of the page.