By whose authority? A Sermon for Proper 21A, September 27, 2020


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.

Saying yes to God’s new future: A sermon for Proper 21, Year A

Each Wednesday at 12:10, a small group of us gather in the chancel for the Eucharist. There’s a core group of four regulars in addition to myself, and each week we’re usually joined by anywhere from 2 to 10 others. Some Wednesdays, I follow the church calendar as it commemorates a saint or other notable Christian from the past. Other weeks, I take the opportunity to begin thinking and reflecting about the readings for the coming Sunday.

This past Wednesday, I focused my comments on the rich passage from Philippians 2. The heart of it was probably a hymn that was used by Christians in worship and adapted by Paul for his purposes in this letter. It has been a key text in the understanding of the nature of Jesus Christ, providing imagery and food for thought that has preoccupied theologians for centuries and found its way into our own liturgy and worship. I was going to go all Christology: kenosis, adoptionism, all the rest.

But as I read the gospel at the Wednesday Eucharist, I found myself full of questions about what was going on in this brief and apparently disjointed passage. Later that afternoon, I received an email from one of the regulars asking me to help her understand what Jesus was going on about here. So instead, I’ve been thinking about this puzzling passage and how it connects with our lives.

Key to making sense of Jesus’ teachings here is the context. The lectionary tells us where Jesus was when he said these things—the Temple. What’s less obvious is when he said them. This comes after Palm Sunday, when Jesus entered Jerusalem to shouts of Hosanna. Matthew is quite explicit in his chronology (following Mark closely) and says that after the Triumphal Entry, Jesus and his disciples went to the temple, where he drove out the money-changers, and healed some people. Then they left the city and spent the night in Bethany.

They returned to the temple the very next day and as Matthew tells it, this question from the chief priests and elders is the first of several encounters between Jesus and representatives of the religious establishment. They ask him, “By what authority do you do these things, and who gave you this authority?” We might infer that they are referring to Jesus’ teachings and to the healings he has performed, but undoubtedly, Matthew also wants us to conclude that they are asking about Jesus’ authority to drive out the moneychangers. In short, the religious establishment wants to know why Jesus is stirring things up. They may be worried about their own position; they are probably worried about the institution—the temple—with which they, their authority, their power, status and wealth, are bound up. And undoubtedly, they are looking over their shoulders at the Romans, who are ready to quash any sign of rebellion or unrest.

Jesus had done a number of things that asserted his authority. His triumphal entry, riding on a donkey, accompanied by palms and the singing of Hosanna to the Son of David was a proclamation of his messiah-ship. Immediately following that, he entered the temple and disrupted the business of the moneychangers. Now, the next day, he is again in the temple, teaching. All of this is a direct challenge to the religious establishment and to the status quo. Jesus is stirring things up. When the chief priests and elders come to him and ask him by what authority he has done these things, is an attempt to put him in his place, to catch him out, so that they might have him arrested.

But, as is so often the case in Matthew, when asked a question, Jesus replies with a question of his own. His question is a trap for them that they immediately recognize. By asking about the authority of John the Baptist, Jesus is associating himself with the popular, martyred prophet and demanding the chief priests take a public stance on John’s ministry and message. They refuse to respond, but silence itself was an answer.

Jesus follows up his question with a simple parable about a man who asks his two sons to go work in the vineyard. When refuses, but then goes to work later, anyway. The other says he’ll go, but doesn’t. It’s an odd parable, but also compelling, for we can all put ourselves in the place of any of the three characters. We’ve probably experienced something very much like that—being asked by a parent to do something, saying yes, and not doing it; or as a parent asking a child to do something. But what does the parable have to do with the question of authority, of the nature of John’s prophetic ministry (and by extension, Jesus’ own)?

Consider this. In the parable, the father has authority over his sons. He tells them to go work in the vineyard. The two respond differently to the request, but later, the one goes to work, even though he had initially refused. We don’t know why; no reason is given. Yet we could imagine any number of reasons, some of them legitimate, for his initial refusal. A single example—he had too many other things to do. What’s interesting is that he, the son, didn’t take his initial no for his final answer. He revisited it later, changed his mind, and got to work. He imagined an alternative, a new, a different future that wasn’t limited by his past experience and his past answers.

After the parable, Jesus comments about the effects of John’s ministry. He was rejected by the religious establishment but the tax collectors and prostitutes believed him and even after seeing that, the chief priests and elders refused to accept him or listen to him.

All this helps us understand what Jesus is getting at here. The chief priests and elders came to him, trying to trap him. They were secure in their power, secure in their understanding of Jewish law and what it meant to be faithful to God. John, and Jesus, were offering different interpretations, offering transformation to the worst of sinners and social outcasts. They heard John’s and Jesus’ words of hope and promise, and imagined a different, new future in which they were no longer limited by the pasts they had lived. By contrast, the chief priests and elders couldn’t imagine an alternative future, an alternative world in which God accepted and loved tax collectors and prostitutes. They could only imagine a future like the present in which they lived.

Our pasts can often limit our imaginations. The burden of history, personal or institutional, can be onerous indeed. For us at Grace, we can sometimes feel weighed down by the thick walls that surround this building. Its space, its legacy can narrow our perspective and make it difficult to imagine new ways of being church and being community here. Our history, the conflict we have experienced over the years can frighten us and make us timid. But we are imagining a new future in this season as we embark on our capital campaign and plan for renovations that will adapt our space to our current context.

We are all burdened by our pasts. We struggle with decisions we have made that we have come to regret. We live with the pain of broken relationships and other things that shape our present lives close off our futures. But God is beckoning to us, offering us a new future with new possibilities, a future in which God invites us to leave the hurts and regrets of the past behind, say yes to God, that we are God’s beloved children.