The Stuart Highway, near Kulgera NT 2016

When you don't have the numbers

 ... and when you do

An exploration of power

Matthew 21: 23-32

 When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, ‘By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?’ 24Jesus said to them, ‘I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. 25Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?’ And they argued with one another, ‘If we say, “From heaven”, he will say to us, “Why then did you not believe him?” 26But if we say, “Of human origin”, we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.’ 27So they answered Jesus, ‘We do not know.’ And he said to them, ‘Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.

28 ‘What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, “Son, go and work in the vineyard today.” 29He answered, “I will not”; but later he changed his mind and went. 30The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, “I go, sir”; but he did not go. 31Which 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. 32For 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.

Philippians 2:1-13

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, 2make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. 4Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. 5Let the same mind be in you that was* in Christ Jesus, 
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
   did not regard equality with God
   as something to be exploited, 
7 but emptied himself,
   taking the form of a slave,
   being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form, 
8   he humbled himself
   and became obedient to the point of death—
   even death on a cross. 

9 Therefore God also highly exalted him
   and gave him the name
   that is above every name, 
10 so that at the name of Jesus
   every knee should bend,
   in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 
11 and every tongue should confess
   that Jesus Christ is Lord,
   to the glory of God the Father. 

12 Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; 13for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

The part of Matthew we call Chapter 21 begins by giving Jesus the authority of God. This is its whole assumption. Jesus cleanses the temple, and the fig tree withers. It withers not because it is cursed, but because it has been shown to have no fruit.

The arrival of "the chief priests and the elders of the people" is thus a challenge to what has already been established in the reality of the kingdom of heaven in Matthew's gospel. And they ask a question about authority. It is a dangerous and deadly question because in the reality overlapping and competing kingdom of Caesar, they have the numbers. The kingdom or empire of Caesar is all about the numbers. Caesar has power, and only has power, because he has the numbers, whether they be willing, or coerced.

When the chief priests and elders of the people ask their deadly question, Jesus outmanoeuvres them. He agrees to answer their question— he recognises the numbers— if they will answer his question. And then asks a question of great topicality, a question which plays to the crowd’s sense that John spoke truth and that there is something hollow about the teaching of the authorities, something which stinks about their closeness to the Herods. So they cannot refuse to answer, but because either answer that Jesus allows them will undermine their power., they retreat to, "We do not know," and are humiliated.

They have no authority of their own. And, suddenly, they don't have the numbers. They have to weather the storm and wait for another opportunity to take him down. They can only concede that at this moment Jesus holds the power. He has the numbers.  For all their privilege and prestige they are mere humans, just like the rest of us, always at the mercy of the crowd. Like all of us, they live in fear of the crowd.

They see Jesus push home his advantage. He asks another question. The answer is obvious; it has only one possible answer, such a transparently obvious answer that, again, they cannot refuse to answer him. Because he has the numbers— the crowd is on his side, they have to answer.

And they can see only that the trap is sprung. They are the sons who did not obey the father, and therefore the tax collectors and prostitutes enter the kingdom of heaven before them. They experience condemnation, and live in fear of the mob which might at this moment explode. Because they live by the numbers they can see no hint of grace in what Jesus has said to them… although grace is there, writ large.

So where does authority lie. Is it in numbers?

If the numbers rule, then the crowd—the mob—rules.  This is why the chief priests back down when they see Jesus has the numbers. But another crowd arrested Jesus by night. At that time they thought they had engineered his handing over by choosing a moment when he did not have the numbers. Is this the sum total of power and authority?

In his question, from his reality of the kingdom of heaven, not the kingdom of Caesar, Jesus asks who— which son— did the will of his father. The play on words is obvious.

Preacher Rhetorica notes that

the expression ‘will of the father’ occurs four other times in Matthew’s gospel, and always in the context of Jesus’ instruction of his disciples. Jesus’ own prayer is that he might do his Father’s will (26.42). Surely Matthew is urging his own community to follow the ‘good son,’ – to do the Father’s will. And through his words to them, he urges us to do the same.

Authority lies in the will of the Father.

Does the will of the father involve having the numbers?

Jesus’ question about the sons appears to show us two things about the relationship between us and God.

Firstly, God appears to be willing to suffer indignity and insult from all sides. Both the sinners and the righteous refuse in their actions to honour the father. And the Father does not enforce power. It remains a mystery why one “son” repented1. In the story Jesus tells, the father is humiliated by his children, but simply goes on being the father, and seeks no revenge. Perhaps godly power does not consist of having the numbers, but is located in something else.

The power of Caesar does lie in having the numbers. Caesar, whoever he is at any particular time, is able to enforce by the numbers. But in the Gospels, and in the kingdom of heaven, God refuses to use the numbers, that is, the father does not force the sons' compliance in this story and, in allowing Christ to go to the cross,  God does not force our compliance. (To use force is to win “by the numbers.”)

There is no logical necessity here, but I wonder if God's refusal to win by the numbers means that any time we win by the numbers means we have used the way of Caesar, rather than going the way of Christ.

The second thing evident in the story Jesus uses for his question, is that all of us are sinners. The difference between the sons is not what they say, but what, in the end, they do. Both— all— begin by refusing. There is not only the great grace that God accepts sinners in this story.  I find, as well, this a heartening story when it comes to our struggles with each other in the church, for it says we all come from the same place. None of us can claim some kind of moral privilege, as though we are unstained. And it also offers me, as a pastor, a peculiar grace when I seek to help someone in their discipleship: I am privileged to speak without a power advantage; if I am true to myself I cannot win, for I do not, and cannot, have the numbers. I have no moral high ground! Nor is it demanded of me. The only authority I have is to "be there" like the father of the house, and seek to continue to love, because I too am one who refused to do the will of the father.

To bring this into reality, what happens when Jesus does not have the numbers? He is arrested by night. (Matt 26:3-5) The whole gospel is a story based around the fact of his crucifixion, the fact that he didn’t have the numbers. But the gospel is also clear that, even without the numbers, he did have the authority of God, and that the reality imagined by the chief priests is different to what really is.

How do we live a life following Jesus, which is based on his authority, (Matt 7:29, 8:9, 9:68, 9:8, 10:1, 21, 23-27) but which does not have the numbers? And, given that having the numbers seems to breed violence— having the numbers is what kills Jesus, how do we live when we have the numbers?

The answer is simple, but not easy.

Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life? (Matthew 16:24-26)

Introverts and thinkers like me sit and imagine our own brilliant arguments about how things should be and how the gospel should be lived out. We engage in arguments in our imagination, and sometimes even with others, where our cogency and insight wins the day. But winning is all about having the numbers. Winning is the way of the world. In our imaginary triumphs and closely argued sermons, we thinkers are no different to the activists.  (In the context of Matthew 10:19-20, James Alison says, "If we are preoccupied about our defense… [with] extraordinary and triumphant self justification… [where we win by] the power of our argument…  then we are still prisoners of the violence of the world." Raising Abel, pp146.)

And as activists, we go out and rally the numbers to make the point, and too easily become our own version of the scribes and the Pharisees as we enforce victory through our numbers. It’s the way the world works, and it’s too often the way we work.

An insight about how we might argue and struggle for right worship and discipleship in the spirit of Jesus came home to me while thinking about the “false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16You will know them by their fruits.” (Matthew 7:15-16)

How, in my very limited knowledge, I wondered, do I avoid being a false prophet? Who can know what is true? After all, my whole life experience has taught me both the brilliance of insight and the total blindness which comes through the lens of differing cultural / personal experience.

Indeed, in a recent conversation I was struck by how the two sides had two quite different interpretations of a situation— quite opposing ideas, both of which were absolutely compelling in their own context! Now, I think my reasoning in this particular situation is valid. We need to arrive at a certain conclusion if we are to work through the situation successfully. But if I seek to win the day with the numbers, I will not only be a "prisoner of the violence of the world," but I will be as damaging as a ravening wolf.

There must be a different way if I am to remain Christian.

I think my authority apart from numbers begins not in my ability to argue or interpret ideas. It begins in my lived experience of the gospel. All I can share with any real authority is my experience of what God has done for me and is doing for me. And I can share with “fear and trembling” that to which I am being called, or by which I am being challenged.

Much much of what I have seen in church seems to be based too much in arguing about the truth of theories and ideas about where the church should go, and too little based in actual lived experience. I am a past (I hope) master at this, and did not find it easy to admit that much of my careful reasoning and arguing was only hypothesis; I had not been there. Some of us who are quick to point out the problems with asserting that people who have died are raised by faithful prayer because someone who knew the brother of a missionary in Indonesia who said this happened… don’t notice that we are similarly expounding what someone who read a book in which someone else said someone’s church did… Yet we claim to speak with authority!

Many of us can recite a list of visiting authorities who have brought us the latest and greatest church growth / renewal techniques from America. The fact that that we keep inviting them, suggests to me that we lack a fulfilling vision of church for ourselves; as a church we are empty of the authority born of experience. And I wonder if sometimes we have preached the ideas of the visitors rather than the authenticity of own our experience.

For ideas to gain authority they have to get the numbers. Experience provides its own authority, and as Jesus showed us, can get us killed. Do we want to win, or do we want to follow Jesus? It is always a temptation to seek the numbers to enforce our ideas.

The thing about our experience is that we can’t bullshit our way through a situation. If I have the numbers, I can pretend my idea is superior, and enforce it. I can say you simply don’t understand, and silence you. But my experience can be measured by others, even despite my enforcement. The fruits of my experience; that is, the living out of what I say I experience to be true and of God, are an indisputable public record. This is why people work so hard to cover up bullying in the workplace, and to silence whistle blowers. It's because fruits are the indisputable measure and judgment of their management skills and behaviour or, in church, of discipleship— mine included.

My experience protects me, and others, because it keeps me real and honest. And if I am dishonest with myself, it shows.

Privileging the experience of others, bowing to the fruit of the spirit in their lives, letting their experience critique our ideas and enlighten our own experience of life, protects us from being abusers.

How does this work out in practice? Well, we don’t win.

If we “live [our] life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ,” if we have “the same mind … that was in Christ Jesus,” then we will

not regard equality with God
   as something to be exploited, 
7 but [empty our self],
   taking the form of a slave,
   being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form, 
8   humble [our self]
   and became obedient to the point of death—
   even death on a cross. (Philippians 2)

Equality with God!!

Properly, I cannot make this statement. Yet it holds two serious truths.

Practically, some people in every congregation wish make the minister God. (Even if it is a god they reserve the right to crucify.) And any minister who has not yet felt the temptation to exploit their equality with God should probably have a long talk with their spiritual director! Indeed, many of us want the minister to win. We sometimes willingly make up the numbers to allow the minister to win even if he or she is bullying, because we dream that the minister will make the congregation bigger and safer, more fiscally secure—which often simply means more comfortable as a place in which to keep living as we already are, and to be affirmed in that.


love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams…  active love is labour and fortitude… But I predict that just when you see with horror that in spite of all your efforts you are getting farther from your goal instead of nearer to it—at that very moment I predict that you will reach it and behold clearly the miraculous power of the Lord who has been all the time loving and mysteriously guiding you…” Father Zosima in The Brothers Karamazov, pp 58 of Book Two. (I found this reference to Dostoyevsky in a Sojourners  article.)

Love in action is dreadful because it is a self emptying.


The second truth is shown by Walter Wink’s words.

… God is HUMAN … It is the great error of humanity to believe that it is human. We are only fragmentarily human, fleetingly human, brokenly human. We see glimpses of our humanness, we can only dream of what a more human existence and political order would be like, but we have not yet arrived at true humanness. Only God is human, and we are made in God’s image and likeness — which is to say, we are capable of becoming human. (Walter Wink Just Jesus, My Struggle to Become Human pp 102)

There is something about seeking to win, seeking to get the numbers, which is seeking equality with God. It imagines that God wins instead of giving. We only grow towards our humanity by imitating the Christ, by emptying ourselves of our need to win, and by refusing to seek equality with God. Girard said ‘‘no existence is free from imitation, and the alternative to imitating Christ or Christ-like models is the imitation of our neighbors.” Which, in the end, is to seek to become our own little god, the Caesar for our own little patch.

A current preoccupation within our synod— the thing we are encouraged to imitate, if not envy, often seems to be having a financially and numerically sustainable congregation. And the proof of such a congregation seems to be numerical growth. If we are not winning numbers, we are dying. Which seems to make a lot of sense. Except that the quickest, surest way to getting the numbers is a thinly disguised form of winning. It compromises the gospel by having losers, for whom the other name is… scapegoats.

I was in a church once when the pastor outlined the leadership team's quite worthy and inspiring vision for the future of the congregation in its imitation of Christ. And then said, “If you can’t get on board with this— if you can’t commit to this— we’d really rather you left us.” And I rather approved, because those who won’t join the vision are not merely dead wood. They are burden. The leadership empties itself seeking to work around the damage these people do. If we are not careful we are enslaved by their naysaying. You can only do the work of the church and build up the numbers if you don’t let yourself be dragged down.

Except…  I’ve never known a naysayer or a malcontent who was not, like me, full of pain, a prisoner hungering for freedom and for something more of life. And, in Ross Langmead’s words (I could also quote the last parable of Matthew 25) I read

Lord let me see, see more and more…
See the face of our Lord in the pain.
Lord let me see.

Lord let me hear, hear more and more…
Hear the wail of starving people
     who will die,
Hear the voice of our Lord in the cry.
Lord let me hear.

It is in the naysayers, and among the problem people, that we meet the Christ. It is among the very problem people who threaten our small congregation’s viability and survival that I am finding the Christ who is giving me life! And it is indeed emptying me.

But if I just win the arguments, if I use the numbers to stop the damage being done, if I ensure the survival of the congregation, I will lose the Christ… and his authority. If I get rid of the naysayers— and you can do this nicely, and make it seem to be in the interests of Christ's congregation— I will have provided myself with ready made scapegoats if things don't improve— if only we'd done it sooner… but I will have expelled Christ. And I will have no better answer for the next problem that comes.

My "fear and trembling" hope is that we can "work out [our] salvation" by taking the path which will assuredly "empty ourselves," but which does imitate the way of Christ. I do not pretend to know what this will cost us. I only know that like Euodia and Syntyche and Clement, all our names are in the book of life. There is no warrant to drive one of us out. We have to find another way to be of the same mind in Christ. (Phil 4:2-3)

Andrew Prior (2017)
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!


  1. Two resources highlight this for me.

Preacher Rhetorica:

We’ve got to think on this incident carefully. Who do you think you are? Who do you identify with in this Temple court? Those who do the will of the Father? Probably ... but remember how they are characterized here, and I don’t just mean the generic tax collectors and prostitute label. For example, have you considered the circumstances of the family triangle in the parable? It is set in a peasant village where the houses are rudimentary and most activity takes place outdoors. What we mean by privacy didn’t exist, and the rules of social place and honour applied in every circumstance. For the first son to actually say “no” to his father was a deeply shaming thing—everyone knew about it, everyone commented on the lack of respect, the father was derided for his lack of authority, the family was the subject of gossip. In other words although the son eventually does the Father’s will it as at great cost to the Father’s prestige and standing in the community—shades of the Father in the parable of Prodigal Son perhaps? Is the parable telling us how costly it is for the Father to give his children the freedom to find out who they think they are for themselves?

Rev Amy Allen:

A father, who we might suspect to be the authority by title and force, asks his sons to work in his vineyard.  The first son says no—undermining the parental authority.  The second son says yes, presumably submitting, but then fails to go—again, undermining the authority of the father.  Following this parable, heavenly authority, it seems—who is “in control” and has “power” in the Kingdom of God—comes neither from force (physical or financial) nor from popularity (titles or opinion polls).  Perhaps, in a post 9/11 world, in a struggling economy, amidst constant politicking, it may seem that heavenly authority is no real authority at all.  But then, for reasons unstated, the first son turns around and works in his father’s field anyway…. All Jesus leaves us with is a disobedient son, who turns around and does the work of his father anyway.

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