Proper 21: September 27, 2020



I have been thinking a lot about Harry Potter this week. Before I go further, I guess I should give warning about some minor spoilers to the overall series and more significant spoilers to the fifth book and movie, but really, the book was published 17 years ago, and it has been 13 years since the movie was released. So…sure, spoiler alert.

In the fifth installment, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, we meet a new character, Delores Umbridge. We are clearly meant to dislike her from the start, and she only gets worse. She has no background or experience in teaching, but gets herself appointed as a teacher and, from there, slowly takes over the school, imposing ever more onerous and arbitrary rules. Some students she controls through fear, but many of them quietly follow along—because Umbridge was the authority, and rules are rules. Others gleefully join her in enforcing them, perhaps seeing an opportunity to belong to something or to gain more status in the new system than they could in the old.

This being a children’s series, of course, it is the students who eventually begin the rebellion to oust her, setting off fireworks inside, flooding hallways, and engaging in a variety of magical hijinx. Along the way, many other teachers decline to help her reassert control, saying things to the effect of “I could have fixed that, I just wasn’t sure whether or not I had the authority.”

Authority is a major theme across today’s texts, most obviously, of course, in our passage from Matthew, in which the word itself appears, but it undergirds our other passages as well.

Let us look at the Exodus text. Moses, by now, has got to be getting tired of the Israelites. He is an Israelite, but was raised in Pharaoh’s household. He saw the mistreatment of his people, and acted, killing an overseer who was beating another Israelite. The other slaves, knowing that they would be punished for the death, rejected him. So Moses ended up in Midian, where he was serving as a shepherd for his father-in-law. We should note, much as scripture will come to raise the occupation of shepherd, or at least raise up many individuals who held that role, it is not a job that was respected in the ancient world. It really did not carry much status, which may be why God keeps choosing to work through shepherds, to keep surprising everyone with the people they overlooked…but that’s a sermon for another time.

Moses is serving his father-in-law as a shepherd when God speaks to Moses from a bush, burning and yet not consumed. God tells Moses to go back into Egypt and this time, Moses will free his people.

It does not go well. It takes ten plagues, each worse than the last, escalating to the death of children before Pharaoh lets the Israelites go…and then Pharaoh changes his mind, gathers his army, and chases them, planning to recapture the former slaves.

God creates a path through the sea for the Israelites, and then closes it on the Egyptians, breaking off the chase.

The Israelites complain about the lack of water. God, through Moses, cleans a well. The Israelites complain about a lack of food. God sends quail in the evening and manna, bread from heaven, in the morning.

And today we are back, with the Israelites again complaining to Moses about a lack of water. Moses asks why the Israelites “quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord.” Then, Moses turns and complains to God, not about the lack of water, but about the Israelites. The lack of water may be a threat to everyone, but Moses thinks they will murder him first.

The pattern completes itself: God tells Moses where to find more water. The crisis is averted…on to the next crisis.

I have found myself, honestly, growing annoyed with the repetition.

Does God not know they need food and water without their complaint?

God told Moses that God heard the cries of the Israelites in Egypt. Why does God not hear them now? Why does God wait for the Israelites to grumble to Moses and Moses to grumble to God?

Why do the Israelites keep putting all the responsibility, all the authority, on Moses?

I think we find an answer in our text from Matthew.

The chief priests and elders ask Jesus “By what authority are you doing these things?”

The Israelites are, indirectly, continuing to ask Moses this same question. We do not know how much time passed between the end of Genesis and the beginning of Exodus. We know it was enough time for “a new king…who did not know Joseph.” We know it was enough time for the Egyptians to forget Joseph. Was it enough time for the Israelites to forget as well? Perhaps not completely. Kings and rulers are more motivated than most to forget the great things done before them lest the comparison reveal their own lack of greatness. Perhaps though, it’s been long enough for the Israelites to forget the promise. Generations of slavery seem hard to reconcile with the promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

So perhaps the question the Israelites are asking, each time they grumble to Moses, is not just “did you bring us here to die?” but “are you a prophet of God, or are you just another man filled with empty promises?”

They are asking “by what authority do you do these things?”

And Moses, to his credit, always tries to turn them back to God, but generations of slavery have shaken the Israelites faith, just a bit. Moses keeps telling them his authority comes from God, but the Israelites do not want to accept that they can access that as well.

Maybe they think Moses is mad.

Maybe they think Moses is magic.

Maybe they think Moses is the only one who can talk to God.

Maybe they think they are too small, too weak, too sinful, too unimportant to talk to God.

Maybe they are afraid God will not answer.

Maybe they are afraid God will.

I think they are all of those. Certainly many of us are. We fear putting our faith and trust and hope in God because we do not think we are good enough. We make Moses into a super-hero. We elevate the prophets and the saints because, if we put them on pedestals, then we do not have to emulate them. If we make their goodness super-human, we free ourselves from the responsibility to even try.

We forget that every prophet in scripture has doubts. Every prophet in scripture, at some point, asks God “I’m nobody. Why me?”

Hannah Arendt, a German-Jewish political philosopher and writer, who escaped the NAZIs not once, but twice, coined the phrase “the banality of evil” in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem. Adolf Eichmann was a NAZI bureaucrat who became responsible for administering the Holocaust. He did not come up with any part of the plan, but he meticulously followed orders. Eichmann escaped the initial NAZI trials after the war, living in hiding first in Germany, then in Argentina, before eventually being taken by the Israelis in 1960 and brought to Jerusalem to stand trial. Hannah Arendt, by then living in New York, got herself assigned to cover the trial for The New Yorker magazine.

At the trial, the Israelis tried to cast Eichmann as a monster, a man full of malice and hatred toward Jews, even an evil mastermind. The problem, as seen by Arendt, is that he just was not. He did not have any particular animosity toward Jewish people. He was not particularly bright. He was, in Arendt’s estimation, a bureaucrat who was desperate to belong to something, anything, someone who did not care where authority came from, did not care who made the rules so long as he could follow them, and the NAZI party gave him that feeling of belonging, gave him rules to follow. Israeli psychologists who assessed him before the trial noted that he seemed eager to please, and, if anything, more “normal” than the average person.

It was this utter normality that led to Arendt to coin the phrase “the banality of evil” to describe him, to describe those who do monstrous things out of an unexceptional desire to fit in, to avoid thinking for themselves, to avoid taking responsibility.

In our Matthew text, the high priests and elders ask Jesus: “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Jesus responds with another question: “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” The high priests and elders were afraid of the crowd, and so they answered “We do not know.”

That answer reveals something about the chief priests and elders. They may not know where Jesus’ authority originates, they may not know where John’s got his authority, but they know where they get theirs: from the crowd. They know if they lose the crowd, they lose everything.

Jesus continues with a parable: “’A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, “Son, go and work in the vineyard today.” He answered, “I will not;” but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, “I go, sir;” but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?’ They said, ‘The first.’ Jesus said to them, ‘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 chief priests and elders, those who claim to follow the will of God but actually follow the will of the crowd, who outwardly conform to the expectations of society, but do not use their status for God, are the second son. The prostitutes and tax collectors are the first son, the ones whose outward lives do not conform to the religious standards and expectations of the day, but who work to follow God in their lives even as they lack respect and status in their community.

Paul speaks to this dynamic as well in his letter to the Philippians. Philippi was a Roman colony, not just an occupied city, but an integral part of the Empire. Its citizens were Roman citizens, it followed Roman law and custom, and even hosted a retirement community for Roman veterans. Unlike most of the communities to whom Paul writes, Philippi was a city with no Jewish population, at least to our knowledge.

Roman standards and customs were strong. Authority came from the Emperor. Status was everything, and that status came through kindness and generosity toward those above you on the social ladder and harsh treatment to those below. Ambition and self-interest were the principal means by which you gained status and status was the source of authority.

Paul tells them to put all that aside: “If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.”

Salvation and authority do not come from status. They do not come from showing up in church, or signing into Zoom, at the right time. They do not come from saying the words. The chief priests and elders did these things. The students following Umbridge did these things. Eichmann did these things. They were all doing the respectable thing, following the authorities at the time.

Moses had no status or authority when God called Moses. Jesus had no human status or authority when he began his ministry. Pharaoh, Pilate, the chief priests, the elders, and yes, Umbridge, and Eichmann all had human status and authority. Caesar had human status and authority.

No, Paul tells the Philippians: “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”

We are, each of us, responsible to God. The Israelites kept having to ask for food and water because they kept avoiding that responsibility. They kept putting the responsibility on Moses, making themselves accountable to Moses, following Moses and letting Moses do the work of following God. Letting Moses take the risk of following God.

Paul reminds us we are each, collectively and individually responsible to God. We cannot hide behind human authority. We should not make people into heroes so that we do not have bear the responsibility of doing as they did. Human status means nothing if we gain it by exploiting others or do not use it to honor God “for it is God who is at work in you,” each of you “enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”

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