Going With the Grain—Matthew 21: 23-32
(September 27, 2020-17th Sunday after Pentecost)
Have you ever used a hand planer on a piece of wood? Wood has a grain, or a direction in which it naturally grew when it was still part of a tree. If you plane in the direction of the grain it involves an easy gliding motion and your finished piece is smooth. But if you go “against the grain”, thus the saying, the planer gets stuck and jammed and causes the wood to tear and splinter. Life has a grain to it. It’s the direction that the Spirit is going, the direction in which God is moving creation. God is moving creation towards full communion. The natural grain of life leads us in the direction of an intimate fellowship between all created beings. The tool that helps us move in that direction is love, known by it’s many manifestations—acceptance, compassion, mercy and justice. This is the way of Jesus, a way that the religious and civic leadership of his time viewed with suspicion and unease
Context is important here, this passage in Matthew comes immediately after Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem to an adoring, palm waving crowd. No longer would he be an itinerant teacher on the outskirts, Jesus was now in the civic and religious centre of the Palestinian Jewish world. This passage comes right after Jesus’ outburst of righteous anger over the desecration of the temple by business interests. Finally, this passage takes place in the temple, the very heart of the Jewish faith, the domain of the religious leadership. Jesus’ presence, his teaching, his actions are an affront to those who question him. The authority of the chief priests and elders comes from their status and lines of family succession. Jesus has none of this going for him, the authority he claims, to teach, to heal, to rebuke is a threat to the order and status quo the chief priests and elders believe they are duty bound to defend.
When you see your role as being a defender, you tend to be on the lookout for threats. When you’re a leader and this is your lens you tend to be divisive. You don’t bring people together, you separate them into neat, tidy, simplistic categories that keep the status quo going, that serve power, not God. You can see this in the way In Jesus responds to the question about his authority. He strongly implies that the religious leadership are going against the grain of life, against the direction in which God is growing creation. They are wreaking havoc, splintering people into camps—sinners and the pure, blasphemers and true believers. They are blind to the direction God is going because they have tied God to power, power that must be defended. They are going against the grain of life, thwarting God’s plan for full communion among creation.
So much of what is in the bible seems so foreign to us, the cultural and social context was so different from our own. But this question of who can claim God’s authority has been a theme throughout the ages. Today it’s a question that is central to much of the heresy and blasphemy coming out of evangelical Christianity in the United States in support of the president.
Just like the majority of American evangelicals, many have claimed God’s authority to act in the most appalling ways. The Roman Empire did it, the armies of the Crusades did it, the Inquisition did it, and many churches do it in condemning lgbtq plus folks. On this Sunday closest to Orange Shirt day we remember that the United Church did it in establishing residential schools. Al Qaeda, ISIS, Al Shabab do it in killing what they term “the infidels”.
All these are examples of going against the grain of life, of splintering and tearing God’s creation, based on a notion of authority and therefore God (the One with ultimate authority) that is rooted in strength, power, manipulation and the need to defend it. To claim God’s authority as a banner of self-righteous promotion that sets us apart from others is an abuse of religion. We hear these claims to divine authority and we want to throw the concept away as a dangerous and arrogant abuse of religion. But, I think we need to re-claim it and re-enforce what it really means to act under God’s authority. As our faith story illustrates, figuring out whether we or anybody else is acting under God’s authority is a rather simple thing, as most great truths tend to be.
For Jesus all legitimate authority is rooted in God and God’s call. The Chief Priests and the elders would also agree with this. The difference between them is this: Jesus says, in keeping with a long line of Jewish teaching, the only way to know that someone is acting under God’s authority is by the fruit of their actions. Just look at a person’s life, what is the fruit that their life produces? What results from how they live? If you want to use contemporary business language you might ask, “What are the deliverables?” If the fruit/the deliverables are love and it’s many manifestations—community, intimacy, justice, mercy and compassion, those things that bring us closer to God and each other, than you can be pretty sure that no matter how unconventional someone might be they are indeed acting under God’s authority.
That’s what Jesus tries to tell the religious leaders when they question him about John the Baptist’s and his authority: He says “can’t you see something profound and sacred is happening here, God worked through John the Baptist and is working through me. Dishonest tax collectors are turning their lives around, prostitutes are treated with dignity. These people who were once despised and shunned are returning to their communities. God is working in your midst, what more do you need to see?” Legitimate religious and spiritual authority is about cooperating with God, with what God is doing in the world. It’s about going with the grain, with the ways in which God is growing creation. This is a rebuke by Jesus to the kind of power wielded by not only the religious authorities, but by the Roman Empire itself.
There are so many interests vying to wield their authority over us—governments, corporations, advertisers, addictions and fears. The most malevolent use increasingly sophisticated methods that typically tap into our fears to turn us into defenders of the status quo who see a world full of threats and danger.
We worship in community in part to remind ourselves that there is a deeper reality, a deeper authority. There is a grain to life, a natural order of things that leads us to God. It’s not a meaningless world we inhabit, but rather a world full of God’s activity. When people of privilege and power see this clearly, when we remove the goggles of fear, the world isn’t a place that we have to try to control and manipulate in order to protect ourselves. The world is a place of possibility where God calls us out of loneliness and isolation and into a community that is authorized by God to love and serve others.
Those who act under God’s authority produce fruit that nourishes and builds up the human and cosmic body. God’s authority is a mantle of service and humility that draws us deeper into community and into the interconnectedness of all things, which is the reality of God. This is the gospel, this is good news. May we allow it to lead us in the direction God is moving. Amen
Karoline Lewis, Authority Issues, September 21, 2014
William Loader, First Thoughts on Passages from Matthew in the Lectionary, Pentecost 16: Matthew 21:23-32, http://wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/MtPentecost16.htm
Just a note here, you might say in using that terminology I am promoting those same divisions. There is a difference though in language used by the powerful to divide people in order to defend the status quo and language used by the marginalized and their allies to name truth and injustice in hopes of bringing people together through just change. You know the difference by the fruit the words produce when fully embraced.