By What Authority?
In our Gospel reading for last week, we heard Jesus teaching his disciples as they approached Jerusalem. The events described in our Gospel reading for this morning happened just a few days later. But a lot happened in those few days.
Jesus entered Jerusalem in triumph, greeted by cheering crowds who hailed him as a prophet and a king. The religious establishment of the city was scandalized. We reenact that story every Palm Sunday.
The first thing Jesus did after entering Jerusalem was go to the temple and drive out the money changers. That really made Jesus’ opponents angry. But Jesus was too quick for them. Jesus slipped away before they could say much.
The next morning, Jesus returned to the temple—this is where our reading picks up. And this time, the chief priests and the elders were ready. As soon as they saw him, they attacked. “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Who do you think you are, to be accepting the blasphemous cheers of the people and disrupting the business of the temple?
Here we need to pause. We know where this is going. We know the chief priests and the elders are the bad guys in this story. And we know the answer to their question. Jesus does what he does with the authority of God because Jesus is the Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, God from God, light from light, true God from true God.
Knowing all that, we are on Jesus’ side. We rightly fault the priests and elders for their failure to recognize Jesus for who he was.
But if we think about this story from the perspective of the priests and elders, their question is fair. They didn’t recognize Jesus as God incarnate. And if Jesus were not God incarnate, his actions would have been outrageous. Ordinary people should NOT let crowds hail them as a messianic king. Ordinary people have no right to disrupt the business of God’s Temple in the holy city. If I ever do anything like that, you should definitely challenge me!
The reason that what Jesus did that day was OK was because Jesus was who he was. So, it seems like Jesus would explain it to them, that Jesus would tell them who he was, that Jesus would say something about his unique status and authority.
But Jesus never does the obvious thing. Jesus doesn’t answer their question. Jesus turns their question around. Instead of telling them where he gets his authority, Jesus asks them where they think John the Baptizer got his authority.
Now the chief priests and elders are stumped. As we will hear over the next several weeks, they don’t give up. They keep trying to stump Jesus, and Jesus keeps dancing circles around them.
But this story is about a lot more than embarrassing the religious elite of the day.
When Jesus responds to the priests and elders, he doesn’t emphasize his own divine authority, which he could have done. Instead, in his question to the priests and elders, Jesus associates his authority with the authority of John the Baptizer. Jesus says, in effect, I act with the same authority as John.
Why does that matter?
Well, here is a first point. Although Jesus was God incarnate, although Jesus had a kind of authority that no mere human being could ever have, not even John, that is not what Jesus emphasizes in his exchange with the chief priests and the elders. Jesus emphasizes the authority that he shares with people like the Baptizer, people who act under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and in service to God’s mission.
And here is a second point, the main point. That kind of authority is available to us.
We will never have the full authority of Christ, of course. We’ll never have the full authority of John the Baptizer, who was one of the great prophets. But we have the same kind of authority John had, if less of it, the kind of authority that Jesus emphasizes in our reading.
Like John, we have been touched by the Holy Spirit. We have been called by God. And we have been given the spiritual gifts and the spiritual authority that we need to answer God’s call.
Some Christians claim that authority in presumptuous and even blasphemous ways. Some Christians—especially preachers!—delight in telling other people exactly what God wants them to believe and to do. I am not talking about that false and exaggerated authority. Those folks need to learn a little humility.
But sometimes Christians go to the opposite extreme. Sometimes we seem to lose confidence in our ability to discern and to do God’s will,. Sometimes we have trouble accepting our own giftedness. Sometimes we refuse to speak or act with authority when that is exactly what the world needs.
I may have told this story before. But if so, it was a while ago.
At the College in Georgia where I used to work, the administration had done a bad thing, at least as far as I and a lot of the faculty were concerned. I approached a senior colleague to encourage him to lead us in pushing back. He refused. He said he had fought this very battle too many times. He said it was someone else’s turn. I asked him who he had in mind.
You can probably see where this is going.
To my horror, he said he thought I should do it. I wanted to list all the reasons it couldn’t possibly be me. But I couldn’t think of a single one.
Now, this was an academic issue. The stakes were low. But in my small way, I felt a calling to act. What I did NOT feel, while I was talking to my senior colleague, was the authority to act. And yet I had everything I needed to do what had to be done.
I think many Christians feel that way right now. We look around us at a world that is hurting. That is a call to action.
We want someone to make the pain go away, to fix all our problems. Particularly in a campaign season, we tend to project our desperate hopes on political leaders. We worry about who will win office in November, and rightly so. I certainly care.
But no President, no Supreme Court Justice, no politician is going to wave a magic wand and make everything better. That’s not a criticism. Political leadership matters. Politicians can do a lot. But not all of our challenges are political.
It doesn’t appear that God is going to intervene and miraculously fix everything either, at least not without us.
Real change begins with ordinary people, faithful people, stepping up to the plate, trying to do right, trying to do God’s will.
Not long ago, a parishioner sent me a cartoon. Two old men are walking together. One says, “I’d like to ask God why he allows terrible things like hate, racism, war, famine, and homelessness.” The other responds, “I’ve always thought God was asking us that same question.”
We are called by God to do our part in transforming our world. We are given all the gifts and all the authority we need. The question is, will we use our God-given gifts and our God-given authority? Will we speak out, as the Baptizer did? Will we act boldly, as Christ did?
I say again, we are given all the gifts and all the authority we need. My prayer is that we will use them faithfully.
In Christ’s name. Amen.
9/30/2020 08:32:03 am
Thank you for a much needed reminder.
9/30/2020 09:25:49 am
Comment continued: It is so easy to get discouraged these days, with the pandemic and all the divisiveness in the country. It is good to be reminded that we are responsible to do what we can do make things better and that God gave each of us not only the gifts, but the authority to act on His behalf.
10/6/2020 12:13:29 pm
I agree with Mary, especially about the reminder that we have the authority to act on His behalf, not only the authority, but the responsibility as well. Too often we play down our God given gifts, thinking that we are being humble, when in reality we really are shying away from using the gifts we have.
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Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan