September 27, 2020
“By what authority are you doing these things?”
That’s the question the chief priests and elders asked Jesus in today’s gospel reading. It’s also a question that is very appropriate in our own context as we watch the assaults on democracy in our divided nation and continued protests over the apparent unbridled power of police to kill African Americans with impunity and celebrations for those who attack and kill protestors.
By what authority? The context for this scripture is absolutely essential to understand what’s going on here. Today’s reading takes place the day after Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem. He followed that display of royal symbolism by going to the temple and staging a violent demonstration—turning over the tables of the moneychangers and expelling all those who were buying and selling things there. The next day he returns to the temple, and upon his arrival is confronted by the guys in charge. Does any of this sound familiar? Does any of it resonate with you?
“By what authority do you do these things? And who gave you this authority?”
In a similar situation, we might ask, “What right do you have?”
I don’t think it’s a legitimate question. I think they mean to put Jesus in his place, to remind him where he is, where they are, and where they are standing. It’s coming from a place of privilege and power, and it’s meant to stop the disturbances, to quiet things down, to shut Jesus up.
But he isn’t having any of it. He doesn’t back down. He responds, as he so often does, with a question of his own, “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?”
It’s quite a risky thing to ask, from Jesus’ perspective. To put it another way, he might be asking, “Was John the Baptist’s ministry, his preaching of repentance, his baptizing in the wilderness, was all that right, did that come from God, or was it his own personal invention?” A risky question, because John had been executed by Herod. For Jesus is not just asking a question about the source of John’s authority, he is also aligning himself with John’s ministry—aligning himself with a prophet who was executed because he was a truth-teller and challenged Herod, calling him out for his immorality, venality, and corruption.
The gospels tell us that “all Jerusalem went out to see and listen to John” but we can be certain that the temple authorities were not big fans of his, that they perceived him as a threat to their power and wealth.
Unlike John, he preached against immorality, greed, and corruption from the wilderness, Jesus has brought his message to the heart of Jerusalem, to the very heart of Judaism. By overturning the tables of money-changers, Jesus is bringing John’s message of repentance and God’s coming reign to the temple and to the temple elite.
For us, in this moment, the significance of Jesus’ actions, the significance of this question asked of Jesus, and the question Jesus asks in reply, may seem obvious. We may think it has to do with a conflict between Jesus and Judaism, or more narrowly between Jesus and a religious establishment that refused to acknowledge him as the Messiah. We may want to project it forward into the controversies and division of our own time and see it as a question to be asked of political leaders or police officers with whom we disagree, or to be asked of protesters who have taken to the streets. But I think any of those strategies are inclined to leave us off the hook, to let us avoid the uncomfortable question about Jesus’ authority that is being asked of us, and of exploring the nature and extent of his authority in our lives and in our world.
If we reflect on those questions, we might find ourselves in a position of question our own perspectives, the way we have appealed to Jesus’ authority to support our own arguments and positions. Instead, I wonder if we might learn something from the reading from Philippians.
Have this mind among you that was in Christ Jesus… Paul is addressing life in Christian community, in the first instance he is writing to the small group of Christians in the city of Philippi, urging them to resolve their conflicts, to deepen their relationships with each other. He tells them to imitate Christ and then, in language that soars like poetry and has inspired Christian theology and liturgy for nearly 2000 years, he writes:
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death–
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
While there is much one could say about this, and let’s be honest, it includes language that we might find troubling or problematic, like slavery… I would like only to focus on what I think is Paul’s main point, that Christ emptied himself, did not himself grasp for power or prestige, did not demand his “rights” but emptied himself, becoming human in obedience to God.
It’s a mystery that is beyond our comprehension, though we have tried to make sense of it for two thousand years—Christ’s love, his humbling himself, his self-giving. I’m not sure it’s something we can actually emulate or imitate, notwithstanding Paul’s admonition. Instead, it stands before us, not as model, but as gift—God’s gift of grace. And if there is a mind that we have in Christ, to see in Christ’s actions a new possibility for our own and for human existence in the world, a possibility of self-giving love, that offers love’s gift to the world. It’s a witness, a way of life that is desperately needed, especially in these dark days. And to circle back to the question that began this homily, to see Jesus’ authority, not in his divinity or his ability to work miracles, but in the self-giving love that brought him to the cross, raised him from the dead, and brings us hope.