Jesus' authority cannot be bettered
By Father Paul Turner
Catholic Key Scripture Columni
The Good News for the 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time, October 6, 2002
Authority is hard to obtain, precious for accomplishing tasks, a source of self-esteem and deceptively fragile. We entrust authority to parents, police, presidents, priests and popes. We possess authority by dint of hard work or the luck of the draw. Without authority, anarchy reigns. With authority, great deeds can be accomplished.
Authority can be lost. It can be wrested away by force, trampled by scandal or usurped by a better idea.
In Jesus' day, the chief priests and the elders of the people held authority. They governed the social and religious behavior of their people. No one successfully challenged their leadership. Except Jesus.
Throughout his ministry, Jesus had very little patience with those who misused religious authority. Controversies appear very early in the Gospel stories. Conflict with religious groups intensified throughout his work, and reached a climax in the days before the crucifixion.
Next Sunday's Gospel (Matthew 21:33-43) is a case in point. In the Gospel narrative, Jesus has nearly completed his mission. He has already entered Jerusalem in the procession we identify with Palm Sunday. Now, in the holy city, a few days before his arrest, he tells a parable to the chief priests and elders of the people. It so infuriates them that the plot against Jesus' life crystallizes. The antagonism prepares for the rhetorical showdown of Matthew 23, which we will hear in another four weeks.
The parable resembles one that Isaiah tells in the Old Testament (5:1-7), a passage that serves as next week's first reading. In the Gospel, a landowner plants a vineyard and leases it to tenants. But at harvest time, the tenants turn evil. The landowner sends servants to pick up his produce, and the tenants seize, beat, kill and stone the servants. The landowner sends his son, thinking, "They will respect my son." The landowner assumes that the son's authority will be honored. Not so. The tenants also kill the son in hopes of acquiring his inheritance.Jesus asks the chief priests and elders what they think the landowner will do to the tenants. The authorities, who probably hobnobbed with a landowner or two, sided with the owner against the tenants. "He will put them to a wretched death and lease the vineyard to others."Jesus then turns the parable on them. The story almost works like an allegory: The landowner is God, the vineyard is the world, the hired tenants are the religious leaders, and the maltreated servants are the prophets. The son, of course, is the Son of God, seized, thrown outside the vineyard and killed there - just as Jesus will be arrested, driven outside the walls of Jerusalem and crucified there (Matthew 27:33).
The parable serves notice to the religious leaders that their authority is fragile. They have inherited the perverse tradition of leaders who persecuted prophets, and they are about to join forces with those who will kill the Son of God.
Therein lies the problem with authority. People with authority enjoy authority for its own sake. They may use it wisely and well, but they may also abuse it for personal gain. The chief priests and elders heard that their authority was about to be taken from them and given to other tenants. This threat to their authority provoked their strong reaction against Jesus.
Jesus philosophizes about the encounter by quoting Psalm 118:22-23: The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. Jesus applies the verse to himself. He will be rejected by the religious leaders, but he will become the cornerstone of belief for his followers. (The New Testament also cites the same passage in Acts 4:11 and in 1 Peter 2:7. The psalm is a favorite of the Easter season.) The leaders will misuse their authority by killing the one who threatens them, but Jesus will rise again. His authority cannot be bettered.
In the last few years we have seen a disputed presidential election, the increase of national authority by victimization and the use of force, the abuse of authority by church leaders and the muscling of authority by the media. This parable concerns the transfer of authority away from one group of leaders. It still happens again and again in diverse ways. But the authority of the Son of God rules over all, and it never changes.
Father Paul Turner is the pastor of St. Munchin Parish, Cameron.