Jesus said to the chief priests and elders of the people: “What is your opinion? A man had two sons. He came to the first and said, ‘Son, go out and work in the vineyard today.’ He said in reply, ‘I will not,’ but afterwards changed his mind and went. The man came to the other son and gave the same order. He said in reply, ‘Yes, sir, ‘but did not go. Which of the two did his father’s will?” They answered, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Amen, I say to you, tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you. When John came to you in the way of righteousness, you did not believe him; but tax collectors and prostitutes did. Yet even when you saw that, you did not later change your minds and believe him.”
Tension is rife in today’s Gospel lesson. The setting is Tuesday in Holy Week. Jesus has made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem with an overwhelming ovation and the city is abuzz with rumors and anticipation: “Is this the Messiah? What’s going to happen?” We see in the text that Jesus is in the Temple and he’s having a significant dust-up with the Chief Priests and the Elders of the People. They are feeling threatened and are both defensive and looking for a reason—any reason— to have this self-proclaimed Messiah put in his place.
It’s not going well for the Chief Priests and Elders, they are getting testier, and as we know their reaction is going to get Jesus crucified. Consider their mind-set; they have witnessed this popular Galilean teacher enter their city in a Messianic fashion. They have watched in horror and outrage as he trashed the whole sacrificial system of worship by driving out the money changers with a whip, and he has announced the Temple’s destruction, implying that he has authority that is much greater than theirs. They are more than threatened and so they confront him publically and at length.
In the preceding section of the scriptures they ask: “By what authority are you doing these things? And who gave you that authority?” (vs. 23): Authority has become the central issue.
This particular confrontation started when Jesus asked the chief priests and elders questions about the authority of St. John the Baptist and because the atmosphere was so fraught with political explosiveness, they punted. They chose not to undermine their own authority by affirming the authority of John, and at the same time they were also aware of how popular John was and the crowd was edgy enough without firing them up by refuting John’s authority. So they said that they’ didn’t know.
Jesus responded by saying that since they wouldn’t answer, neither would he. But the whole thing comes down to Jesus’ Messianic authority and whether or not folks were going to submit to it. Jesus then told the little parable about the two sons, the first said that he would not be dutiful, then repented and was obedient. The second said that he would do what was required of him, and then refused. As we know, the first one who repented is the model for faithfulness.
Faithfulness is a matter of submitting to authority. The question is who’s authority? For Christians, it is the authority of Christ. And the primary place for discerning the authority of Christ is the Catholic Church. The basis of Catholic teaching and belief is that Christ’s authority has been passed on to the Church, the Catholic Church. Let me tell you why I have accepted it and continue to submit to it after living the first 60 years of my life as a Protestant.
First this authority is historical. In the little one chapter NT book of Jude, in the third verse, there is this phrase that refers to the “faith which was once for all delivered.” In other words, the faith of Jesus was delivered to the first century apostles and in turn it has been handed on through the centuries by means of the apostolic succession of bishops and this faith has been delivered to us today.
This is the Faith of Jesus and it is supremely authoritative. This faith is conveyed to us through the teaching Magisterium and it transmits to us what Christ would have us believe and do and what we do not believe nor should we do. Over the years we’ve often had to have the faith explained through the teaching of ecumenical councils and the prayerful reflections of Popes and bishops and some of the concepts have had to be developed, but there has always been one faith that has been passed along to the Church. That is basis of our authority and it is an historical authority.
My second reason is that this authority is objective. In other words, it couldn’t be subject to my personal whims or the whims of some vote by a Church convention. A 50% plus one vote is not authoritative enough to say that abortion is ok or that the definition of marriage can be changed, let alone issues like the nature of the Eucharist or the question of the Incarnation of Christ. These latter points had to be settled by Church councils.
This authority had to operate within the very fibers of the Church itself. To prove its objectivity, this authority had to be spread out over a large number of people, over a long period of time while remaining consistent in its themes and purpose. The Catholic Church has been faithful and consistent for 2000 years.
Third—connected with the criterion of objectivity— is that this authority is universal. As you know, Catholic means universal. St. Cyril of Jerusalem (d. 396) said that “The Church is called Catholic because it extends through all the world…because it teaches universally and without omission all the doctrines which ought to come to man’s knowledge…because it brings under the sway of true religion all classes of men, rulers, and subjects, learned and ignorant; and because it universally treats and cures every type of sin…and possesses in itself every kind of virtue which can be named…and spiritual gifts of every kind.” (Catechetical Lectures 18.23) The Church cannot be the voice of just one person, one nationality, one theological grouping or one pressure group. This authority has to transcend geographical, cultural and intellectual boundaries. Not only does this authority have to be universal in geographic terms, it also has to transcend time as well. It has to be universal down through the ages, connecting authentically with every age.
But if this authority is universal it must also be particular. This fourth trait means that this authority must be practical and applicable in a particular place and through a particular person. It cannot be just a vague ‘body of teaching’ determined by majority vote, nor can it be some kind of ‘consensus of the faithful’ at a particular time and place, something that is subject to change 10 years from now. However, if it is particular, then it also has to be able to speak to particular problems and circumstances. A particular authority will apply the universal truths of the gospel to particular problems with confidence.
Fifth, this authority is intellectually satisfying. Unlike some traditions, the Catholic faith has not been “dumbed down.” While it must be simple enough for every person to understand and obey, it also must be challenging enough for the world’s greatest intellects. As St. Jerome, whose feast day is today, said of Scripture, ‘it must be shallow enough for a lamb to wade and deep enough for an elephant to swim.’ This authority must be intellectually coherent within itself and it must be able to engage confidently with all other intellectual religious and philosophical systems. Furthermore, if it is intellectually satisfying, it must offer a world view which is complete without being completely closed. In other words, there must be both answers and questions which still remain.
Sixth, this authority is Scriptural. The Church’s authority is rooted in Holy Scripture. Because it is Scriptural it also looks to the Bible continually as a source of inspiration and guidance. While this authority flows from Scripture it also confirms Scripture and the Church offers the right interpretation of various texts with confidence, never contradicting Scripture as a whole, but always working to further illuminate Holy Writ. In fact,“ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ!” insisted St. Jerome. So to review, I accept and submit to the authority of the Catholic Church for six reasons:
- The authority is historical.
- It is objective.
- It is universal.
- It is practical and applicable in particular places and through particular people.
- It is intellectually satisfying.
- It is based on Sacred Scripture.
The authority of the Catholic Church fulfils all six of these traits. They show that the Church’s authority is not ephemeral and merely human, but is of divine origin; in other words much of it has been revealed by God. Obviously there are many, many more reasons to accept and submit to the authority of the Church. This is at best a partial list. The point is that I need reasons to say “yes” when the Father instructs me to go work in the vineyard of the Lord and these in part are my reasons. And more importantly, I want to follow through, especially during times of great stress and tension. That is the essence of being faithful.