Questions of Authority
Matthew 21: 23-32
All week this week, I have heard the question pass through my mind over and over, ‘by what authority are you doing these things?’ This is a question from our text this morning – the priests in the Temple pose this question to Jesus. Jesus has just overturned the tables in the Temple, he saw the actions of the temple weren’t aligning with the words of the temple and he overturned the tables and sought to bring the hypocrisy to an end. So, the chief priests and the elders, they approach Jesus and they ask him, what or who gives you the right to come in here and do this? With righteous indignation as their perceived authority, they question Jesus about his.
‘Authority’ is often a dichotomous presence in our lives together – either you have authority or you do not. However, the definition of ‘authority’ is actually quite a bit more complex. As the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines it, ‘authority’ means: “the power to give orders or make decisions; the power or right to direct or control someone or something; the confident quality of someone who knows a lot about something or who is respected or obeyed by other people; a quality that makes something seem true or real.” It is a quality; a power. It is communally defined throughout the levels of hierarchy – meaning, those in power can identify the voice of authority but, those not in power must also have respect of the voice for it to be declared an acceptable authority. Authority is used as a foundation of comfort, and basis for challenge. As Karoline Lewis of Luther Seminary says, “While we may long for an easy litmus test of sorts to adjudicate authority properly, unfortunately, an understanding of authority in one instance does not mean it will be the same in another.” Indeed, we do have the ability to pick and choose what we believe holds authority and we have the ability to change the voice of authority over time as well. And, in our Scripture today, we bear witness to Jesus in an exchange with the priests in the temple about the role authority plays. And Jesus, once again, upends this seemingly universally accepted vision of authority and offers a different perspective – and, in doing so, exposes hypocrisy while offering a far more hopeful future for all.
So, let’s get to it. Our text today comes to us from the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 21, verses 23-32. Let us listen for God’s Word. Let us pray:
Gracious and loving God, open our hearts and minds that we might know more of your love. Amen.
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.
This is the Word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.
So, here we are, in Jerusalem and Jesus is still teaching. Jesus has journeyed through the countryside in the region of the Sea of Galilee, moving towards the imperial power by heading to Cesaerea Philippi in the north and then to Jerusalem. In our text this morning, Jesus has triumphantly entered into Jerusalem on the donkey and the colt, and now he is at the temple – the place of worship, the house of God, the dominion of the religious leaders in power. Many of us are familiar with the scene where Jesus enters into the temple and overturns all the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves and he declared that the temple was a house of prayer for all people – not a den of robbers – and then the poor and the lame came to him, seeking blessing and healing. The chief priests stood witness to these things and they grew angry at him – what right did he have to do what he did? In their minds, they were the ones in charge. They were the ones who kept order in the temple. Who was this man that he would challenge their authority – challenge their power – without permission to do so? Their egos were being challenged, as was their religious dogma, and they felt a need to defend themselves in front of the crowds.
Karoline Lewis comments how “Jesus sheds light on how we as people define and allocate authority – that it is deeply intertwined with its function in a particular time and place and in this particular setting, Jesus gives a nod to the fact that authority is defined only in community.” In this particular scene, the chief priests hold power and wield an authoritative voice not only because they want and take that voice of power within the community but, because the community has agreed that it is theirs for the taking. However, in times of tension, in times when uncertainty is present – not terribly unlike the time of Jesus when there was distinct division between the haves and the have nots, a distinct division between the powerful and the powerless – there is often a scramble to determine who and what the authoritative voice is. And, here in this scene, the chief priests pose the question to Jesus about authority because that is what they value most in this tumultuous time. Defining authority helps them frame the world, frame their faith and so that is what they seek to identify first. However, Jesus begins to shed light on the fact that defining the authority isn’t the right question to ask.
So, right there, in the middle of the temple, the chief priests approach Jesus and they ask him outright, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” In the middle of the temple, in this symbol of religious authority and power, the leaders ask Jesus this question. In some ways, it feels surprising that Jesus doesn’t jump at the chance to proclaim to the priests that his authority comes from God. But as we have seen in our study of Matthew over the past several months, Jesus rarely acts the way we expect him to. So rather than proudly proclaim that his authority comes from God, Jesus instead asks the priests about the baptism of John and if they believe John’s baptism was of heaven or of man. As the priests weigh the options before them, they respond by saying they do not know the answer. The priests reveal a fear of the public undermining their authority should they answer the question against their beliefs – but more revealing was their true goal in questioning Jesus’ authority. Their goal was not to better understand Jesus; rather, it was to assert their own authority, their own power, to protect the status quo of their position and privilege.
Both of these questions – where does your authority come from and what was the origin of John’s baptism – have the same two perceived possibilities for responses. From heaven or from men. We would likely expect Jesus’ answer to both of these questions to be straight-forward. We would expect Jesus to say that his own authority comes from heaven and that John’s baptism comes from heaven. And yet Jesus does not answer either question. Rather, Jesus begins to reveal how that question is not the important one to ask. Instead of answering the question about authority, we begin to see Jesus breaking down the structure of this sharp ‘either/or’ nature of authority as we understand it. We see Jesus acknowledging that his own life on earth is shattering the landscape of the options from either God the Creator or human as the authority. Jesus’ life on earth is affecting a change from the simple structure of faith as he dwells in both of these realms – divine and human. And, in this scene, here in the Temple, Jesus, the Messiah, is creating another way in which possibilities are opened and hope in the living God has a more prominent role to play than simply authority of religious institutions.
The priests’ question, I believe, speaks to our human longing, our desire, to establish some kind of authority that we can clearly articulate and easily follow. Additionally, clear lines of authority help us to challenge everything standing in opposition to our defined authority. But this text challenges us to ponder whether something is awry about our desire for that kind of clarity in order to frame a life of faith. Jesus challenges the priests, and those listening, to consider a faith, and expression of faith as a community, not within parameters of a clear framework as defined by authority but, rather by a new framework which is more holistic, more focused on a living God, at work in the world, creating, reconciling and restoring continually. Jesus suggests that our faith would be better expressed not by citing authorities to defend a point or fighting with authority to achieve a goal – but, perhaps our faith, and our lives together as a community of faith, would thrive in relationship with one another as we discern the presence of God together, as we live as forgiven people in hope for what else is to come.
It is against this backdrop of challenging the value of authority that Jesus tells the parable of the two sons. At first blush, it is difficult to understand what this parable has to do with authority but, as we begin to see the alternative path into the complexity of faith, it becomes clearer how this parable speaks of how we regard the past and how we might approach the future. If the past becomes the authority, we may lose sight of what is ahead.
The priests and the elders have indicated their loyalty to the authority they claimed to possess in the past. Then Jesus, aware of how his presence on earth is changing the landscape of living a life of faith, shares this parable of the two sons. There is one son who says he will help his father but then the job doesn’t get done. I’m sure we can all relate – sure mom, I’ll put my laundry away – and, days later, the laundry remains crumpled in the dryer. And then, another son said that he just couldn’t help – perhaps he already had too much on his plate, perhaps he was too busy, over-committed, too tired to do one more thing – and he tells his father he cannot help. But in the end, despite his refusal to help his father, this was the son who recognized that the future is always open – that there is always room for the possibility ahead. An appointment gets cancelled unexpectedly and he can now help; a realization is made that he would be better off helping his dad than waiting in front of the computer for that email from the boss; whatever the change might be – this son reflects a faith that though he indicated he wouldn’t be able to help, the future holds hope and possibility and does not need to be dictated to or dragged down by the past.
As David Lose suggests in his article Promising an Open Future: “At this pivotal moment in Matthew’s story about Jesus, and through this deceptively simple parable, Jesus is inviting his adversaries into an open future, one not dominated by the arguments and opposition of the past, but one that is open to the movement of God’s spirit to heal, revive, restore, and make all things new.” In the text for today, the chief priests and elders do not accept this invitation. They believe they have too much at stake in the past – it has created for them their primary identity, and whatever its limitations, they have become dependent on that identity – and so they refuse to trade that past for an open future. But, it is those who are not of the privileged echelon who discover that their identity does not need to be bound to their past – they do not need to be defined by the past to dictate the future; though they said they couldn’t help, they can follow-up with an apology and pitch in the future. Represented here by “tax collectors and prostitutes,” a new future is made possible as they, too, will be welcomed into the kingdom of God – even ahead of those who cling to the past for their own sake.
Parables are meant to be unsettling, and there are two types of parables. The first type of parable resolves things that seem to be in tension with one another. And, in the second type, Jesus uses a parable to create tension where folks have moved quickly to definitive answers – which is what we see in today’s text. Jesus sees the priests’ desire to maintain their authoritative voice in man-made tradition and ritual, so that patterns of behavior can be ordered accordingly. Jesus, however, understands that in God all things are new again, and through his own life on earth, God is at work creating and healing, reconciling and loving the world. And, because of that, Jesus tells a parable to explain that there is great need for a posture of openness to what may come. No one will be thrown out of the kingdom of God, but Jesus warns the priests and the elders that the presence of God in the world is more powerful, more exciting, more life-giving than the authority of the past. Though authority and order is seemingly easier to abide by, we are enriched and nourished when we remain open to the possibilities of the future. When we discard the blinders we have built over our eyes, made of pride, made of the need to be right, made of greed for power – when we discard these blinders, the hope of witnessing what the living God can and will do in the world becomes more brilliant and beautiful and tangible than rigid claims of authority.
Friends, this parable speaks to the active presence of God in the world – not simply how to behave in order to experience the divine. Jesus points to God who regularly invites us into a new relationship. Jesus points to God who will not count our past deeds, mistakes, griefs, or hurts against us. Jesus points to God who refuses to define us by what we do, or what we say, or what has been done to us, but instead regards us always and only as God’s beloved children. This is the authority, the Author of all life, Jesus points to – and may it be so. Amen.