“By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”
Matthew 21:23-32, Philippians 2: 1-13
Before we can begin to talk about our passage today from Matthew’s Gospel we need to back up and look earlier in the gospel story. Jesus rides into the city of Jerusalem on the back of a donkey and its colt. Many people greet him with branches cut from trees, cloaks lay in his path, crying out,
‘Hosanna to the Son of David!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!’
It is a wild (disorderly) scene as people enthusiastically welcome Jesus into the city of Jerusalem.
Now not everyone knows him. Some ask, “Who is this?” We are told the whole city is in turmoil.
On entering Jerusalem, Jesus goes to the temple and drives out those selling and buying. He turns over the moneychangers’ tables and at the same time welcomes in and heals those who are blind and lame. It is then that the children sing out “Hosanna to the son of David.”–proclaiming a reference to Jesus as the promised Messiah. The children!!
It is no wonder that the religious leaders are concerned. Jesus has come in a very public way to challenge the ways things have always been done. He has cast aside common practices and quoting scripture has reprimanded the chief priests and the elders.
The next day when Jesus reenters the temple to teach, the religious leaders confront him. They have had about enough from this itinerant rural preacher. “By what authority are you doing these things and who gave you this authority?” The wording of this question does not convey clearly in English. It does not mean, “Do you or do you not have the right to do what you have done?” Rather it means, Which of several,” or “Of what kind” of authority do you have? They assume that Jesus is exercising authority of some kind. Does it come from God—by which he would be accused of blasphemy? Does it come from Satan—which it may appear to be? Or have you claimed your own authority—which they believe they can easily refute? Their main interest is in trapping Jesus to reveal his authority so they can discredit him. They want to put him in a box so he can be conveniently contained without further disruption. They want to assert their own authority and put this man in his place.
But being a good teacher, Jesus answers their question with a question and now the religious leaders finding themselves trapped in a difficult position, decline to answer. Jesus tells them that he, therefore, will not reveal the source of his authority.
This idea of authority is something that we wrestle with today. I remember as a teenager being chafed by not having any authority. My words were often dismissed as coming from “just a child.” But in our country today, we see a general rebellion against authority of any kind—parental, institutional, government. As David Brooks, columnist for the New York Times stated in an article, the bumper sticker “Question Authority”” no longer symbolizes an attempt to distinguish between just and unjust authority. It symbolizes an attitude of opposing all authority.” Vast majorities of Americans state that they do not trust institutions. Some of this can be justified as we witness the breakdown of civil discourse and the ability to work together toward a good that is held in common. But some of it has to do with an inability to let go of even a bit of our personally claimed individual authority that keeps us from working together to build a just society for all.
The idea of Jesus’ authority is an important theme in the Gospel of Matthew. Beginning with the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ teaching is greeted with awe by his listeners because he seems to speak as one who has “authority.” Later in the gospel, Jesus sees a paralyzed man. He first forgives the man his sins and then heals him in the presence of the religious leaders establishing his authority on earth to both forgive and to heal
There is a difference between “authority” and “power”. Power is something that anyone with enough wealth, or weapons, or army can accomplish. Power too often comes at the expense of the people’s will. Power can be used to stifle other voices or efforts in order to maintain the stability of the one with power. We see power being exercised all over our world to control, to acquire even more power and wealth, and to seize the freedom and property of others.
Authority on the other hand must be given. One has the authority to do things because one has been authorized to do them. This authority is given in two ways. Authority can be given from above by those with power and it can also be given by those from below who see in the one authorized someone or something they want to follow. Authority is always and only something that is given.
The leaders in the temple were seen as the authority in the religious life of the people of Israel. Their own authority had been given to them by God in the time of Moses and passed down for generations. This authority was firmly established in the order of worship and practices of the temple. Their authority, though highly conditional, was also granted by the Roman rulers. In exchange for a measure of religious autonomy, they were expected to maintain order among their people.
But Jesus came to draw a distinction between earthly power and authority and his authority as God’s beloved son. He proclaimed a different authority, and through his words and his actions he revealed its source.
His authority was not about keeping order, but about breaking open the old order to welcome in the kingdom of God. Jesus did not come to destroy the temple and it leaders. He came to restore them to their intended purpose—which is what he calls us to do in our churches–to draw all people to the love of God and of God’s people. He came to open up the leadership and the temple to a future where God is always doing a new thing, inviting unexpected workers into his vineyard—a future where by God’s authority all are invited into God’s grace.
This is the way of Jesus. He is the one who interrupts and disrupts power and piety; righteousness and privilege that can too easily become mixed together and confused. Through the authority of God, Jesus healed those who were in need, he forgave sinners, and taught thousands about the blessings of God.
But even with “all authority in heaven and on earth’ that had been given to him, we hear in our reading from the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Philippians that Jesus did not grasp authority or exploit equality with God. Rather he “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.” He emptied himself and in this way he opened himself fully to be the vessel of God’s unending love. Loving, selflessness, humility, regard for the other, caring for the other, vulnerability—not your usual form of authority.
How do we as followers of Jesus respond? How do we follow in the way of one who does not hew to traditional forms of power? How do we follow one who will never be captured or controlled; the one who mystifies us and yet captures us body and soul?
And how do we invite others to follow Jesus who continually calls us to a new future—to participate in a joyous, and self-sacrificing life that calls us to give up our own privilege in the service of others? To engage in a life that rather than embracing selfishness, ambition, or conceit considers others as better than ourselves?
In the most recent copy of The Christian Century, there is a series of articles reflecting on the 25th anniversary of the publication of the book, Resident Aliens written by Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, two articulate theologians, preachers, and teachers of the church. The book written in the 1960’s called on Christians to “think of themselves as ‘aliens’ in American culture who were part of the countercultural ethos of the church and shaped by the biblical witness rather than by liberal, capitalistic, or democratic assumptions.”
Twenty-five years later, the magazine sought to find out how this book is heard in the 21st century. One response quoted theologian Donald MacKinnon in speaking of the “costliness of the incarnate life. ” He stated that “To live as a Christian in the world today is necessarily to live an exposed life; it is to be stripped of the kind of security that tradition, whether ecclesiological or institutional, easily bestows.” Willimon and Hauerwas say that it is not that the church has been dispossessed or marginalized by the contemporary American culture; its that its marginalization from the dominant culture is the effect that Jesus Christ has upon anyone who attempts to obey him.”
In this faith community of Grace Church, we are living into an open future. We are exploring new ways of being church. We do not have some of the most prominent aspects of the church’s traditional structure. We have been called a “church without walls.” We do not know fully what new thing God is doing in and through us, but we are called just as if we were inside an edifice to listen carefully for the movement of God’s new order in our lives and to act on what we hear. We are learning what it means to be marginalized—to be outside the expected form of being a church. When we are asked, “When are you going to build a church,” what do you hear God saying to you? Might it ring with the question posed by the chief priests and the elders? “By what authority are you doing these things?”
And while listening for the grace-filled call of God in our own community how do we invite others into the grace-filled authority of Jesus Christ that does not restrict or judge, that welcomes all; that doesn’t consider power to be something grasped or clung to, but rather poured out so that there is always room for all to be gathered into the presence of God. We are learning together. But in listening and acting, Jesus invites us into an open future, not one ruled by traditional authority or restrictions, but one that is open to the movement of God’s spirit to hear, revive, restore, and make all things new.
The chief priests and elders in our gospel reading today did not accept this invitation. They had too much at stake in the past—it created their primary identity and defined their power in the culture. Sometimes it is in tables being overturned or walls coming down that we are brought face to face with an invitation from our gracious God to enter into a new and open future. And sometimes it is in times of trial and challenge that our hearts are opened to accept this invitation. We can trust in God, the author of our lives. We can place our lives in the outstretched arms of Jesus, the one who has been given all authority on heaven and on earth.
As Paul tells us in his letter, we can “work out our salvation in fear and trembling because God is at work in (us), enabling (us) both to will and to work for (God’s) good pleasure.” May God’s authority continue to fill us with hope knowing in every moment, that God is doing more in and through us than we could possibly ask or imagine.