How do we know what we know? Sometimes that's an easy question to answer. If we have direct experience of something, that's usually an unimpeachable source of knowledge. However, people sometimes draw the wrong conclusion from their own experience. I had a violin teacher who had been in a bad car accident. He was thrown from the car before it burst into flames. Because of his experience, he refused to wear a seat belt. You couldn't convince him that his experience was not typical. Contrary to what you see on TV, most cars doesn't explode in an crash and most people thrown from cars are severely injured or killed. But because of the specific details of his experience, he had made an erroneous generalization.
We can't experience everything. That means we have to take the word of others. If I have had a certain medical procedure, and you're scheduled to have the same thing, you might want to talk to me about my experience so you know what you're in for. Even so my experience may not be helpful to you. What if it was bad because the doctor operated on the wrong limb or the nurse botched starting an IV or I had a reaction to a drug used in the procedure? Or what if they had made changes or improvements to the procedure since I had it? My experience could be a poor guide for you. You might fare better if you talked to a number of people who had undergone the procedure and looked for commonalities.
And other people can be wrong. People have been sent to jail because of erroneous identification by actual eyewitnesses. Sometimes other people lie. How do we know who to believe? Usually we look for someone who is an authority, someone who has had a lot of experience in a certain area and/or studied a certain branch of knowledge extensively and intensively over a long time. You want your pacemaker implanted by a cardiac surgeon with years of experience. You want to base your position on global warming on the work of a group of scientists who have read and evaluated all the research. You want to wear a seat belt because experts have done a lot of studies saying it saves lives.
Unfortunately, not all controversies can be resolved by an appeal to authority. For one thing, studies have shown that people tend to be skeptical of the expertise of authorities with whom they disagree. That's why some people continue to doubt the widespread scientific consensus on climate change or evolution. They may even point to disagreements in the scientific community, which betrays a lack of knowledge of how any group, even one composed of scientists, arrives at the truth. Sometimes the differences are technical rather than substantial. Sometimes those who disagree are in the minority. A few doctors believe that the HIV virus does not cause AIDS. Most are convinced it does and, more importantly, the treatments that have changed the disease from a lethal one to a chronic condition have come from the majority.
Of course, you can always find an example of a minority position that turned out to be right. Continental drift and the discovery that most ulcers are caused by a virus were once rejected by most scientists. Now they are considered established facts. The deciding factor in each case was the accumulation of supporting evidence.
Our gospel today, Matthew 21:23-32, takes place after Jesus drove the moneychangers out of the temple in Jerusalem. As he enters the courts of the temple, a group of chief priests and elders approach him and ask where he gets his authority for doing what he does. Jesus counters by asking where John the Baptist got his authority. The leaders are flummoxed because their reasoning is entirely political. They are not evaluating the facts but how people would react to either answer. If they say John's authority came from God, they know Jesus will ask why they didn't do what John said. On the other hand, answering that John's authority was merely human will enrage the crowd because they could see that John was speaking the truth about the corruption of society and those in power and the need to repent. So they are unable to give Jesus an answer.
This is the same thing that has our government deadlocked. Our elected leaders know that there are obvious solutions to some our problems. But the hardcore members of the political parties who nominate them don't want to hear that reality rarely lines up with one ideology. Our leaders also know that there are problems over which they have no control. But that doesn't stop them from promising to solve them. They never ask if something is true or false, right or wrong. They ask "Is this what my people want to hear?"
It looks like Jesus has merely found a clever way to avoid answering the question of his authority. But actually he is seeing if they will listen to the truth. Unfortunately, they are trying to find an answer that doesn't make them look bad or upset the people. So Jesus knows they are not open to the true answer of his authority's origin. It would be like explaining your iPod to your dog. The only question she has is whether it is good to eat.
Now if they were really interested in ascertaining Jesus' authority, these leaders could tally up the evidence. Did what Jesus preached echo the words of the Torah and the prophets? Yes. The two great commandments he cites out come from Deuteronomy and Leviticus. His disdain for empty religiosity and his emphasis on God's concern for the poor and despised as a true measure of godliness come from the prophets. Did Jesus do more that talk the talk? Yes. He healed the sick and fed the hungry. Did Jesus do anything showing that he had God on his side? Yes. His ability to heal even those born handicapped and to raise the dead speak to his higher authority. But the leaders discount these because he heals on the Sabbath, which they interpret as work, and when he raises Lazarus, they can only see that his new stature will rival their power. They really aren't looking for the truth. They only wish to preserve the status quo.
They say they act on behalf of God but their actions belie their words. Which Jesus neatly skewers in his next parable. A father asks one son to do his work in the family vineyard. The young man says "No" but later thinks better of it and goes into the vineyard as his father wished. The second son tells his father "Yes" but never actually goes and does the work. Which son, says Jesus, did his father's will? The answer is obvious and so are the identities of those the sons represent.
We all know people who say the right words but who do the wrong works when it comes to following Jesus. And I'm not just talking pedophile priests and disgraced TV preachers. There are people in the pews who claim to believe in God but act as if he didn't exist. They say God is love and act hatefully towards people for whom Christ died. They ask God for forgiveness but are merciless towards people who slight them. I have been appalled not so much by the current crop of presidential candidates but the audiences at the recent debates, shouting that the uninsured should die and booing an American soldier. I bet a lot of those people would claim to be Christians. But I wonder if there's enough evidence there to convince Jesus?
We put a lot of emphasis on saying the right thing in church. And, to be sure, imprecise language can lead to imprecise thinking. Remember how NASA inadvertently burned up a multi-million dollar orbiter in the Martian atmosphere because one team was calculating the descent in meters and the other in feet? You have to be using the same terms, clearly defined, to communicate. The good news is not that God loves you so you can do whatever you please, nor that God loves you but not others, nor that God loves you but not enough to get his hands dirty by becoming one of us and dying as one of us, nor that God called Jesus his beloved son but didn't love him enough to raise him from the dead. The good news is that God so loved the world that he sent his unique son so that whoever trusts in him will not perish in degradation, decay and death but share in the same everlasting life that God enjoys. But what good are having the correct beliefs if they don't result in correct actions? Jesus said you know how good a tree is by its fruit and that the world would know his followers by their love. It is not enough to know who Jesus is or what he has done for us if you do not respond to that wonderful knowledge in an appropriate manner.
When his critics correctly answer his question about which son did his father's will, Jesus pointedly says that tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the Kingdom of God ahead of the chief priests and elders of Judea. Why? Because they listened to John. They recognized his authority. And they changed their minds. That's the basic definition of the Greek word for "repent." And not only did they change their minds, they had to change their lives. Matthew was a tax collector. He was a pariah for collaborating with the Romans and exploiting his fellow Jews, though it did make him rich. But when Jesus told Matthew to follow him, the man got up and left that life behind. Mary of Magdala was not a prostitute, contrary to the erroneous exegesis of a 6th century pope. But in view of what Jesus says, some prostitutes must have left that life as well. The people most receptive to the good news are those whose lives has been nothing but bad news. They know things have to change to get better. And if they are really honest, they know what has to change is the way they are living their life. When things seem to be going well for you materially, even if you sense that spiritually you're doing badly, it's harder to decide you need to change your life radically. And the priests and elders were doing pretty well for themselves. They defined what and who served God's will. The reality they created so pleased them there was no way they would let Jesus redefine it. They'd kill him first.
If we are Christians, then the authority we listen to and follow when it comes to how to live our life is Jesus Christ, not any denomination or TV evangelist or political party or economic theory or even parish priest. Not that we shouldn't listen to them but as Paul says, we should test the spirits. In so far as what is said or practiced agrees with and illumines what Jesus said and did, take it in. If it doesn't, let it go. But let nothing take the place of Jesus. That's idolatry.
And never say "Yes" to God and fail to carry through with it. God's no fool. He's much more concerned with what we do than what we say. Because, sadly, words are cheap for us human beings. When all is said and done, there's a lot more said than done. But the hungry cannot eat resolutions, the threadbare are not warmed by political pronouncements, the homeless are not sheltered by feasibility studies, the sick are not treated by cost-benefit ratios, prisoners are not visited by research papers, and immigrants are not welcomed by committee reports. We have to do all that. We may not want to but the true test of whether you recognize an authority is whether it can make you do something you ordinarily wouldn't, whether it can change how you act. If you refrain from passing on a double yellow line even when there's nobody in the oncoming lane for miles, then you recognize the authority of the traffic laws. If you are on a business trip away from your spouse and are hit on by an attractive person in a distant place and decline their invitation, you are recognizing the authority of your wedding vows. If you forgive someone you have every right to shun because of the grievous wrong they've done you, and you forgive them because Jesus says you must, you recognize his authority as the Lord of your life. If Jesus doesn't make you behave in a more loving, just, moral, merciful, generous, and faithful way than you normally would, then you have to ask who is really calling the shots in your life? Who really has the final say? If that voice in your head always tells you what you want to hear, then who do you really worship and obey?
Jesus changes people--if they truly listen to him and act on what he says. He pushes them beyond petty emotions to act extraordinary. He leads them to places they wouldn't have gone. He makes them want to be better: better fathers, better mothers, better children, better spouses, better citizens, better workers, better friends, better givers, better forgivers, better examples. Jesus is never satisfied with the status quo is that means people are suffering or are enslaved by their sins. And we who follow him should being doing all we can to spread the good news that Jesus saves us from all that not only with our words but with our works. We have it on the highest authority.