A Sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost (27/09/20): By What Authority

 By what authority?
Matthew 21:23-33

It has been a dramatic couple of days! Yesterday! Yesterday Jesus rode into Jerusalem in triumph. The crowd welcomed him like some kind of conquering hero, waving palm branches, laying their coats in his way and singing patriotic songs. No sooner had arrived in town than he went up to the Temple. For a while he took a look around, saw everything that was going on, and then, then he emptied the temple courts. He cleared out the animal pens – where the animals for sacrifice were being and sold. He turned over the tables of the money changers. He cleansed the Temple. And then he filled it again. He brought in the blind and the lame, who up to that moment had been explicitly excluded from the Temple. Jesus overturned the established order in the temple in order to bring in those who had been excluded from it. And once they were there, he cured them.

That was yesterday. And this morning he is back again. Teaching in the temple courts. The chief priest have had enough of this. They confront Jesus with a question:
“By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you that authority?”
The temple is their space. They are in charge here.They say what can and can’t happen. It was all very Jesus wandering around the countryside getting people all stirred up, But here, he is a direct challenge to the priests. “Who said you could come in here and turn everything upside down? What gives you the right?” That they ask the question at all tells us that they already have the answer. They have already made up their minds about Jesus. As far as the chief priests are concerned he has no right. The authority he has, and undoubtedly he has authority, the authority he has must be false. Perhaps the priests have heard the rumoured accusation that Jesus casts out demons by the power of demons. And now seeing his challenge in their own backyard they have convinced themselves that it’s true.

We know the answer to the priests’ question. Anyone who has been paying attention to Jesus’ ministry knows the answer to that question. The first time Jesus opened his mouth to preach those who heard him knew:
“What is this? Here is one who preaches with authority” 
Jesus is his own authority! He does not borrow his authority from anyone or anything else. The demons know who Jesus is and he casts them out. He gives sight to the blind, strength to the lame and raises the dead, all on his own account. The poor receive good news from Jesus because he is who he is. We hear his call to turn to God take up our cross and become his people still, because Jesus is the one who was sent to do just that. And still the question gets posed: by what authority does Jesus demand these things of us. People still ask for better, more convincing reasons to believe and obey. But any attempt to establish grounds more determinative, more decisive, more convincing than Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection for why we should believe in him results in idolatry. If we need something else to convince us, another standard of truth to insure that Jesus is the Messiah, then we ought to worship that standard of truth, not Jesus. There is nowhere to go to be more convinced that Jesus is who he appears to be, and that he does have authority, than to Jesus himself. And that is what the priests, and very many others can’t and won’t do.

The priests’ question is not an honest one, And it therefore does not deserve an answer. The purpose of their asking the question is solely to trap Jesus, to give them the grounds to reject and ultimately to destroy Jesus. But Jesus won’t oblige them. Typically, Jesus answers his opponents’ question with a question of his own:
“Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?”
Jesus effectively asks the same question about John as the priest have just asked him about himself.“Tell me, by what authority did John the Baptist do the things he did, and who gave him that authority?” Jesus offers the priests an insoluble dilemma. This is a question they cannot answer. The priests go into a huddle and try to formulate an effective response. They know that if they admit that John had been sent by God they would immediately invite the demand: Well why didn’t to you respond to him? Why didn’t you believe what he was saying and act accordingly? But they also know that they are vulnerable. Their own authority to a large extent rests on the consent of the people, the people’s willingness to do as they ask, and therefore on their (the priests’) ability to deliver civic peace. The one thing they can’t do is provoke a riot. And if they openly deny that John the Baptist was a prophet then that is exactly what they will have on their hands. At which point it becomes clear where the priests’ authority comes from. It comes from the deal they have struck with the power of this world, the bargain they have made with Empire. If the question of authority was addressed to the priests: “By what authority do you. . ?” The answer would be plain: “The Romans.” Jesus’ trap closes on them. They answer Jesus, “We do not know.” And the final shred of their authority frays. The last drop of their right to act and speak evaporates with their answer.

Religious people on the whole are conservative, conservative with a small “c”. They are, most often uncomfortable with, even resistant to, change. Which when you are dealing with eternal truths seems natural enough. “God, the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow.” That is a reassuring thought. It is very reassuring to have something solid to hold onto in all the chaos and upheaval of world that seems to do nothing but change, and never for the better. There is something of that in all our religion. We need that reassuringly solid foundation to our being. The priests are religious people par excellence. No one is more religious than the priests of the Temple in Jerusalem. But in religious people’s resistance to change there may often be something more than the need for a stable reassuring foundation. In the priests there certainly is something more. Jesus, and John the Baptist before him, bring change. They upend the status quo. The priests are the beneficiaries of the status quo. The change that Jesus brings is a challenge to their privileged position. If Jesus is who he appears to be, and I suspect the priests know that he is, if Jesus is who he says he is, then they the priests are redundant. Their role is to stand between the people and God. Jesus takes that role from them. And the priests love their privileged position more than they love either God or the people whom they are supposed to be serving. The tax collectors and the prostitutes, as well as the blind and the lame, those excluded by the priests from a relationship with God, are responding to Jesus. Those at the bottom and on the outside are most likely to respond positively because they have least to lose and most to gain if change happens! Change offers those on the outside and on the bottom, the tax-collectors and prostitutes and the lame and the blind, change offers them hope!

When we listen to Jesus dealing with his opponents, when we see him do such an effective job of disarming their challenge and then hoisting them be their own pretensions, when we see him outmanoeuvre them and corner them into condemning themselves, when we see him do that, we tend to stand behind him cheering him on, celebrating his victories and basking in the reflected glow of his successes. The truth is we should find these stories a lot more disturbing than we do when we stand behind Jesus. The truth is we have a lot more in common with the priests than should make us comfortable. The role of the priesthood is to take the people to God, and  perhaps more importantly, to show God to the people. It is exactly this role that Jesus is taking from them. But it is also the role that Jesus gives to us! The church is his body in the world. It is our task to take the people, everyone around us, to God. And perhaps more importantly our life together should show God to everyone around us. Part of that role is  to point to where God is acting The priests have lost their authority and the role that went with it because they can no longer do it, they can no longer show the people God. They have become so wrapped up in their privilege, so determined to hang on to what they have, so resistant to change, and so compromised by the deals that they have made with the world, that they can no longer do their job. They cannot show God to the world. Jesus’ question to them reveals this. They cannot give the straight truthful answer; “God was at work in John the Baptist” Because if they did their game would be up. But because they can’t can’t give a straight answer it is up anyway.

We like the priests are religious people. Like them we are resistant to change. The question is: is that natural “conservatism,” or are we, like them trying to defend our privilege? Are we afraid we are going to lose our privileged position in relation to God? We spend such a lot of the time trying to shore up our institutions, trying to keep the show on the road by resisting change. What should worry us is the question of whether the institutions we are defending, the show we are trying to keep on the road, is in fact nothing other than the fortress of our privilege.
Jesus points to the people who are welcoming the change he is bringing about:
“Truly I tell you, the tax-collectors and prostitutes are going into the kingdom of heaven ahead of you.”
Those at the bottom and on the outside see the possibility of change that Jesus offers. They welcome the hope that that creates. And they follow him. As the body of Christ we should be able to point to the same thing, those places where God is at work, offering change, giving hope, and leading people into his kingdom. That we find that very hard to do should be deeply worrying to us. Is it because God isn’t acting? Or is it because like the priests we couldn’t do that without undermining the privileges we think are ours? Or because like them we have become so wrapped in trying to keep things the same and prevent change we are no longer able to see God at work?

Jesus offers a parable to the priests, and through them to us, in the hope that it will help them to see their way out of where they are and what they have become. There are two sons: One who consents to his father’s wishes, but does not actually carry them out. One who refuse his father’s wishes – but later relents and carries them out. Perhaps there might be a third son: The one who consents to his father’s wishes. and then actually does as he say he will. Jesus wants the priests and us to become that kind of son. Jesus authority is beyond question, if he is who he appears to be, and surely he is, there is only one response to be made: Accept the change that he wants to bring about in the world and in us, even at the cost of our privilege, do as he asks, and follow where he leads.

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By What Authroity? by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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