It may have escaped your attention, but this past week was officially “Banned Books Week.” It escaped my attention: before hearing a commentary about it on the radio, I had never heard of “Banned Books Week.” “Banned Books Week” is an annual event celebrating the freedom to read, sponsored by the American Library Association. After hearing the commentary about “Banned Books Week,” I got online and did a little research, and I was pretty surprised by a lot of what I found. I knew vaguely, that, oh, say, a hundred years ago or so, books were sometimes removed from libraries in this country because their content was deemed unsuitable or offensive. I remembered hearing that books like Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover had been taken off library shelves because of their language or subject matter, but I really thought that only a handful of books had ever been targeted and that all of this was long in the past. Not so. The American Library Association tracks challenges to books, times when various groups around the country have attempted to restrict access to certain books or get them removed from libraries. The list just of banned and challenged classics is astonishing. Topping the list is The Great Gatsby, which was challenged as recently as the 1980’s. I read The Great Gatsby for I think a ninth grade English class (which would have been back in the ’80’s), and I don’t remember it being all that racy. I suppose I can see the reasons behind the challenges to some of the other classics in the top 10, which include The Catcher in the Rye, The Grapes of Wrath, The Color Purple, The Lord of the Flies, and 1984. But for the life of me, I can’t figure out how Charlotte’s Web and Winnie the Pooh make the list of the top 25 most challenged books of the last hundred years.
Challenges to books continue today. From 2000 to 2009, the American Library Association tracked over 5,000 challenges to books on library shelves. Most challenges are on the grounds that material is “sexually explicit” or contain “offensive language;” other challenges are because books are deemed unsuited to a certain age level or have references to subject matter considered offensive, such as violence, homosexuality, or the occult. The most challenged book in 2013 was the Captain Underpants series for kids, which I had never heard of, but I’m definitely going to check out. The Hunger Games and Fifty Shades of Grey made the top ten, and I guess I can understand why some people would be concerned about them, but The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison? And that, of course, gets to the heart of the matter. How do we make decisions on which books are appropriate and which books are too offensive? Just who gets to decide which books should go on the shelves and which should be banned? Who has the authority to determine what we can and can’t read?
Fortunately for us here in the United States, that question has largely been answered. The First Amendment protects free speech, and books are a form of free speech. As Supreme Court Justice Brennan writes, “If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.” The American Library Association maintains that parents, and only parents, have the right and the responsibility to restrict the access of their children - and only their children - to library resources. Censorship by librarians or any other group, whether to protect children or for any other reason, violates the First Amendment. At the end of day, we, you and I, the citizens of the United States, have the authority to decide what we and our children will and will not read - not the government, not the libraries, not some other group, but you and I.
On the face of it, this morning’s gospel lesson from Matthew seems to hinge on the question of authority. Specifically, the leaders of the temple in Jerusalem want to know by what authority Jesus is acting, and who gave him his authority. They’ve got good cause to ask their question. For most of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus teaches and preaches and heals out in the countryside, in Galilee, far away from Jerusalem, the capital city. But at the beginning of chapter 21, all that changes. Jesus does three things that get everyone’s attention. First, he enters Jerusalem in a big way. He doesn’t just wander in some side gate with his disciples. Instead, he comes in riding a donkey, and in front of him is a crowd of his followers spreading their cloaks on the road and covering them with branches and palms. The crowd shouts, “Hosanna to the son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” This procession puts the whole city in turmoil; everyone is asking just who Jesus is, and stories about him are spreading like wildfire.
Next, Jesus goes to the temple and overturns the tables of the money changers. This is a direct affront, an assault, really, on the temple authorities because of the role of the money changers. Here’s how that systems works. At festival times, faithful Jews come to Jerusalem from all over the countryside. They try and sell their wares in the marketplace and they buy goods they can’t get at home. They also go to worship at the temple, and worship means offering a sacrifice. They take the money they’ve made in the marketplace, the Roman currency with Caesar’s face on it, but they can’t use that currency in the temple, they have to exchange it for the special temple currency. That’s what the money changers do, but they charge an exorbitant mark-up in the process. Jesus kicks over their tables and calls them the robbers and thieves that they are.
Finally, as the dust is settling from all of that uproar, some blind and lame people seek Jesus out, and he cures them. This really gets the temple leaders’ attention. Just who is this guy? Why is everyone so excited about him? Where does he get off calling our money changers crooks? How does he have the power to heal people? So when Jesus returns to the temple the next day and starts teaching, they ask him outright, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” By rights, the temple leaders, the chief priests and the elders, are the authority in the temple. They’re the ones who can tell the crowd who they should shout and cheer for. They’re the ones who can regulate that money changing system. They’re the ones who can tell the blind and the lame how they might be healed. They’re the ones who have the authority to teach in the temple.
Jesus, like any really good teacher, answers their question with a question of his own, a question that is also about authority. “Remember John, that crazy guy out in the desert who preached repentance and baptized all those people?” he asks the temple leaders. “Where did he get the authority to baptize? YOU guys didn’t give it him. Did his authority come from God, or did he just make it up himself?” The temple leaders are caught in a bit of trap here. Hundreds, thousands of people, even, had sought John out in the desert and gotten baptized. So many people were following John around that the Roman government got worried, worried enough that they arrested and executed him. A lot of John’s followers are now following Jesus around. If the temple leaders say John’s authority came from heaven, then they’re as much saying that Jesus’s authority comes from heaven. If they say John was making it up as he went along, the temple authorities worry that the crowds will turn against them. And so they say, “We don’t know.”
Jesus asks them another question, “What do you think?” and then he tells this simple parable. A man has two sons. He goes to the first and says, “Son, go and work in the vineyard today.” His son answers, “I will not,” but later he changes his mind and goes to work. The father goes to his second son and says the same thing. His second son answers, “I go, sir,” but actually doesn’t go. Which of the two did the will of the father?” Jesus asks, and the temple leaders say, “The first.” And with that, Jesus has changed the conversation. It’s no longer about authority; now the conversation is about the kingdom of God. “Look,” he says to the temple leaders, “You’ve got it all wrong. You think because you’re the leaders of the temple, respected leaders of this community, that you’ve got life figured out, but you don’t. God doesn’t care who you are, or what position you hold, or how much money you have, how much authority you command here. Remember when John was out in the desert with his crazy clothes and his wild hair and his weird diet of locusts and honey? Remember what he said? ‘Repent,’ John said, ‘Repent,’ John shouted, ‘Repent,’ John bawled until he was hoarse. You thought he was crazy, because he smelled bad and looked funny and because you hadn’t ‘authorized’ his preaching. Remember who did listen to him? All those people you look down on, all those folks who you preach at every week urging them to be more like you, all those people with jobs you wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole, people like tax collectors and prostitutes: they listened to him. They listened to John because he offered them a chance to come clean, to stop pretending they were somebody else; he offered them a chance to start over. John offered to wash their old selves away, to clean them off in the river Jordan. Those tax collectors and prostitutes stood next to this bizarre, smelly, unpleasant man and let him dunk them in the cold water. And when they came up, they saw what you haven’t seen, what you can’t see, what you won’t allow yourself to see. You don’t have to continue living the way you are. There are options. You’re not stuck going forward, you can turn around entirely, go in a wholly new direction, free from your past, free from everything you are carrying but don’t really need, free from all those voices telling you how you don’t measure up. That’s the good news that John brought, that’s the good news that I bring, authorized or not, because that is what repentance really is. It’s not about beating our breasts and wailing about what miserable sinners are. Rather, repentance is about God’s desire to realign us in the way God would have us live; it is about God’s desire and God’s power to transform us. Repentance is about accepting God’s invitation to new life.
I don’t like to face up to it, but I’m afraid that more often than not, I’m more like those temple authorities than I am like the tax collectors and prostitutes who followed John out into the desert and followed Jesus into Jerusalem and up to the cross. I’m pretty sure I’ve got life figured out, I know what’s right and what’s wrong, the problem isn’t me, it’s all those other folks out there. If everyone would just see things like I see them, the world would be a better place. Thank goodness that just when I’m getting too comfortable with my place in this world, a reminder like this reading from Matthew comes along. Thank goodness there’s still time to go and work in the vineyard, even if I said earlier I didn’t want to. Thank goodness God’s offer of repentance, God’s offer of a fresh start and a new life, is still good.
Maybe this sounds like good news to you, as well. Maybe you are hearing God’s invitation to repent, God’s invitation to new life, God’s invitation to transform your life. But, if on this spectacular autumn day, you’re comfortable where you’re at, that’s okay, too. God will be there tomorrow with the same offer of repentance and a new life, so no worries. Get out and enjoy the day. Take advantage of your first amendment rights and read a banned book - there are a lot of good ones to choose from. Go out and work in the vineyard, even if you already said you didn’t want to. God loved you yesterday, God loves you today, God will love you tomorrow, and God will transform you and bring you to new life. Amen.