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By What Authority

Thomas J Parlette

“By What Authority”

Matt 21: 23-32



Picture for a moment the Exxon Logo – red, white and blue, with those intersecting “x’s”. Now picture the iconic shape and design of the classic Coca-Cola bottle. And finally, picture the blue nose of the Presidential airplane – Air Force One.

Now let me ask – what do those three things have in common?

Only one thing – they were all designed by a man named Raymond Loewy. Loewy was an immigrant who arrived in Manhattan in 1919, dreaming that New York would be an elegant and stylish place. But when he got out into the city, he was disappointed. What Loewy found was a grungy product of the industrial age “bulky, noisy and complicated”, he said.

So Loewy decided to change things. He started designing products that ranged from Lucky Strike cigarette packs to International Harvester tractors. He did more than almost any person in the 20th century to shape the aesthetic of American culture.

During the Kennedy administration, Loewy complained to a friend in the White House that the commander –in- chief’s airplane looked “gaudy.” Determined to improve it, he spent hours on the floor of the Oval Office, cutting up shapes of blue paper along with President Kennedy. Finally, he settled on a design for the nose of the plane that has been in place ever since.

So what was Loewy’s secret? He sensed that consumers are torn between two opposing forces

–         A curiosity about things that are new,

–         And a fear of anything that is too new.

Loewy believed that people wanted things that were “Most Advanced, Yet Acceptable – a phrase that eventually got shortened to MAYA. M-A-Y-A. Most Advanced, Yet Acceptable.

A good recent example of this Most Advanced, Yet Acceptable idea is the introduction of Apple’s iphone. When it was introduced in 2007, it was a thrilling new discovery and it launched a whole new era of what we call “smart phones.” It was Most Advanced – yet at the same time, it was not too radical for customers to accept.

Part of the reason that the iphone was acceptable was because of the success of the ipod in 2001. People had become accustomed to the ipod – it’s looks, it’s shape, how it functioned – so when the iphone came out, it seemed like a logical, next, more advanced step. The iphone was MAYA – Most Advanced, Yet Acceptable.(1)

Raymond Loewy believed that people are torn between a curiosity about new things and a fear of anything too new.

Apparently, so did Jesus.

The day before this encounter with the religious leaders, Jesus had entered the city of Jerusalem on a donkey – Palm Sunday – and he went straight to the Temple, the center of Jewish religious life, where he overturned the tables of the moneychangers, much to the delight of the blind, the lame and the children. After spending the night outside the city, he cursed a fig tree on his way back into town, and went right back to the Temple.

The religious leaders, the ones in charge of the Temple and all of Jewish religious life, are in no mood to beat around the bush with this out of town Rabbi. But because he has a crowd of followers, they knew they needed to proceed with caution. They were afraid of this new teaching, the Most Advanced way of thinking and living that Jesus encouraged.

So they question Jesus – “By what authority are you doing these things? Who gave you the authority to come here and upset the system?

Jesus, in his typical style, answers their question with a question of his own. “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?”

The religious leaders have a quick huddle to discuss their options, see that they have no good answer to give and come back with, “We don’t know.”

“Then I won’t tell you by what authority I do these things – but I will tell you a story.” And Jesus tells this parable about 2 sons asked by their father to go to work in the vineyard. One says all the right things – “sure, I’ll go”- but then doesn’t do it, while the other one says- “No, I won’t”- but then changes his mind, and does what his father asked.

“So, who did the will of the father?”

“The one who went to work.”

“That’s right – and so the tax collectors and sinners will go into heaven before you because they believed John, and you didn’t.”

In other words, the sinners were living imperfect lives, but they listened to John when he said “Repent, Change, live in the ways of righteousness and show love to your neighbors.” The religious leaders- who said all the right things – did not do the right thing.

Jesus’ message of change, righteousness and love was Most Advanced, and Yet Acceptable. All the concepts that both John and Jesus taught were already a part of Jewish law and tradition. All the prophets of Israel preached about the need to repent and come back to the Lord. Living in the ways of righteousness and love was not a new idea either. “Love the Lord your God” comes from Deuteronomy, and “love your neighbor as yourself” is a quote from Leviticus. Jesus’ message sounds new to the religious leaders and it is certainly making them uncomfortable – but it has been around for awhile. It is MAYA thinking – Most Advanced, Yet Acceptable.

Stacy Swain is a pastor in Waban, Massachusetts. In a recent issue of The Christian Century, she tells about a time when she was preaching a sermon series on Communion. In front of her was a table filled with a wide assortment of freshly baked bread and cups of juice waiting for the sharing of the sacrament. She writes:

“I was about halfway through the sermon, sharing how I had come to see not the cross but the communion table as the defining symbol of our faith, when the side door to the sanctuary opened and a lady named Harriet walked in. Harriet had been worshiping with us off and on ever since first coming to the church a couple of months back as one of the guest artists from Common Art. The Boston-based program provides space, materials, and staff to support unhoused and low-income people as they develop their artistic abilities. As Harriet entered the sanctuary, the door shut loudly behind her. Several people glanced in her direction.

I continued preaching, “Communion was not just the purpose of Jesus’ life, but is to be also the purpose of the church. We are to be instruments of that love, working towards healing and wholeness for others and for the world.”

As I spoke, Harriet made her way past the pulpit. She crossed the front of the sanctuary and was about to head down the center aisle to take a pew. But then the table, with all the bread caught her eye. She walked up to the table, ripped off a piece of bread and popped it in her mouth. Then another – and then another. I was still preaching, but everyone’s attention was on Harriet. I could feel people wondering, “What should we do?” After a couple more minutes, Harriet picked up a whole loaf and took a seat.

I could feel the congregation relax. I was almost finished with the sermon – but then Harriet was up again. She made her back to the table and ripped off some more bread. At this point, one of deacons, a lady named Brenda – slipped out of her pew, walked up next to her Harriet and put her arm around her shoulders. When Harriet had all the bread she needed, Brenda and Harriet walked back to their pew, Harriet’s hands full of communion bread.

The religious leaders at the Temple asked Jesus by what authority are you doing these things. He was making them very uncomfortable, disrupting the way things usually operated at the Temple. They were concerned about whether his actions were permissible. Are they allowed?

The people gathered for communion that day were wondering the same thing. What is she doing? That isn’t allowed. Someone should stop her.

But when I saw Brenda put her arm around Harriet there at the table, as Harriet satisfied her hunger with the abundance of bread, the word came home to me in a way that suddenly made it crystal clear what was happening. While I had been going on and on about the purpose of the church and our call to communion, God had something else in mind for our time together – God wanted to show us something. God wanted to show us what communion could look like in our place and time. There it was – an arm around the shoulders, plenty of bread, all the time in the world, and a place in the pew for them both, side by side. There it was, so perfectly and powerfully real.

On this World Communion Sunday, there is still so much that divides us one from another. There is still much edginess, tension and fear. The question the religious leaders ask may still be on our lips, and on the lips of many others as we question the legitimacy of policies and priorities and wonder how best to make our way in this world. This is fine and good and what we need to be doing.

But in the midst of it all, I hope we can also see what is also right in front of us, what Jesus says is apparent to tax collectors and sinners, though hidden from those who think they are in the know. And that is that love has come into the world and is walking even now, in the way of communion, in the way of change and righteousness and love.(2) That is the Most Advanced, Yet Acceptable message that Jesus brings.

May we have eyes to see it, hearts to enter in. Amen.


1.    Homiletics, Vol. 29, No. 5, p40.

2.    Stacy Swain, Christian Century, September 13th, 2017, p18.