Jesus tells the story of a vineyard owner who asks his two sons to go and work in the vineyard. One says ‘yes’ but doesn’t; and the other says ‘no’ but then does do as his father asks. This story, in Matthew 21:23-32 is told after a discussion with the chief priests and community elders in the temple at Jerusalem and he sees how their fear of the crowd shapes their response. Together, this Gospel reading provides an extraordinary story about fear and how fear shapes the way we behave, think, respond, act and speak.
Jesus’ rejection of fear and its limitations is profound. It is one of the most ‘disturbing’ characteristics of his ministry and the trust and love evident in his relationship with God.
The chief priests and elders with authority in the temple and the community who initiated the discussion with Jesus respond out of fear to the discussion, in contrast to Jesus who responds out of complete faith and trust in God.
As I reflect on this story, I see how issues of power and authority are often the cause of conflict in our own communities between people.
Leadership becomes visible in how we use, respond or abuse power and authority; our ability to recognise what is happening at the time and our capacity to make sense of it and respond with integrity.
Leadership essentially concerns how we manage our relations between ourselves and others. Poor leadership practice always misuses power to make people do and say things to keep control and power, through manipulation of fear, shame and honour. Poor leadership gives the individual with the power permission to behave badly, inflict hurt and embed their sense of entitlement beyond anything that is reasonable. We become deliberately blind and deaf to the consequences when our privilege is under attack and our leadership is questioned.
When people in power fear their position is threatened, or when they perceive potential challenges to their privileges or influence over others, they react with violence or with the threat of violence; in their homes, in their workplaces, in the community and nationally.
Another response to threats to our power is to manipulate people through the access they have to information or force them into situations where they will be required to make choices that could lead to their own downfall or destruction. Such a strategy was being used by the Chief Priests.
This story is set within a critical context; in the earlier verses of this chapter in Matthew, Jesus has entered Jerusalem on a donkey dramatically showing a different response to earthly power, he has overturned the money changers tables in the temple challenging the economic power system. Then he turns up once again, much to the elders’ frustration and disbelief, in the temple challenging their religious authority and leadership. So he is confronted by the Chief Priests and Elders who are desperate to take him out of the system.
In this story the Chief Priests and elders don’t say what they really think because they are afraid of the crowds. As institutional leaders, with a lot of power on their side, they are surprisingly afraid and susceptible to their fear of what might happen to themselves and their authority.
The institutional leaders’ question to Jesus as to where his authority came from is directly seeking to address the issue of his right to claim authority and leadership where they believe they own and control it. Matthew returns to this theme of Jesus’ authority repeatedly. Jesus’ authority is not something he possesses simply in his own right, it is given to him (28:18). Jesus in turn, does not simply hold the authority for himself; he gives it to his disciples (10:1).
The crowds react to Jesus’ authority in two ways, firstly they say it makes his teaching different to the scribes. Secondly, the crowds praise God because Jesus uses his authority to forgive sins. Significantly they praise God not for Jesus’ authority as an individual alone, but for the authority given by God to human beings to forgive sins precisely as they have just seen this authority embodied by Jesus. Jesus’ authority, as Matthew 21 emphasises repeatedly, challenges and directly subverts the institutional religious leadership of his day.
It is critical to recognise in all matters of leadership, fear can warp and distort the judgement of those called to lead. Truthful leadership calls for fearlessness and courage. Leaders especially need to be motivated by truth rather than the opinion or pressures of the crowd. We are called to witness to the truth, not to be swayed by fear of the people we are seeking to influence.
The stories and examples Jesus gives of leadership and authority are completely contrary to the way the world views, expects and reacts to leadership.
Jesus’ leadership and authority is focussed on God; it is truthful and not susceptible to others’ opinions; it is shared and not manipulative or driven by fear; it is not based on an honour and shame system; it is open, and accountable to God. It is vulnerable and his leadership is characterised by setting an example that consistently disturbs the peace.
As I think about our communities, our parishes, the church, our families and life together, I see too many examples of people unable to see beyond their own need to hold onto formal positional power or their acquisition of informal power based on knowledge, wealth, expertise or gifts, where letting go and sharing has become personally unacceptable.
Our fear of disapproval and craving for approval actually limits our own ability to see and respond directly to Jesus. We set our sights on what we want in this world, rather than on God.
The shock to Jesus’ listeners to realise the tax collectors and prostitutes are likely to enter the kingdom ahead of those who hold their worldly position and authority tightly is so uncomfortable, it is not surprising the desire to kill Jesus continued to grow with those who could not stand this mirror being held up to themselves and this is still happening today.
It is also doubly hard for those who hold positions of earthly authority to put themselves into such a position and imagine themselves as the people who have accepted Jesus without question or reserve and who are following Jesus, eating with him, standing with him, believing him. These are the tax collectors and prostitutes, the refugees and the poor and dispossessed. It makes the Jesus’ movement with John the Baptist doubly shocking for those who see themselves as leaders with authority.
Jesus always welcomes sincere questions and spirited dialogue. However, his answers always, without fail, call for change in our hearts and minds. Jesus’ reply to the chief priests and elders is just such a call.
In Matthew’s gospel, the heart of discipleship is about letting go of fear, becoming free to take up the cross of following Jesus.
True worship is a disturbing adventure, true discipleship is accepting the call to be disturbed and never to hold fast to the leadership or authority given to you by the world and to let it go; and what Jesus gives, share it abundantly without reservation and always be pointing through to Jesus as the source of the authority.
It is not authority you have earned or own. It is not something you can keep. It is not something that can be retained through fear, manipulation or shame. It is not something you can keep for your convenience and let us be in no doubt, such a mindset always leads to corruption and a distortion of Jesus’ authority and leadership.
The power of Jesus Christ does not conform to many of our usual assumptions about power. This power often looks more like powerlessness to us. It is often at odds with what we think would be the most effective way to get something done. That is why divine power is so frequently at odds with the ways in which we organise and implement our religious institutions and leaders.
Those called to lead must always take an inward look. Before we ask anyone to do anything we must ascertain our own preparedness to respond to the same question, lest we ask someone to do or behave in ways we are not prepared to do for others. As Jesus said:
Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.
The Lord be with you.