September 25, 2011

By What Authority Are You Doing These Things?

Passage: Matthew 21:23

When he (Jesus) 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?’

I recall reading a story of a 12 year old child who called 911 because his parents removed his Xbox play station from his room as punishment to elicit some behaviour change.  He wanted to know if his parents had the right to do that; police were dispatched to the home and informed this child that in fact his parents were well within their rights.  Every teenager I know eventually comes to ask that question of their parents—who put you in charge?  Most don’t call 911; many may not ask directly with words but they certainly do with actions.  “By what authority...?”  This is compounded in our postmodern era that asserts no authority actually exists; authority is understood as merely a construct invented by those who like to be in charge.

‘By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?’  The chief priests and elders of the people asked Jesus this question one day as he taught in the temple.  What prompted their question?

1. When travelling abroad we happily use the services of a currency exchange company; and many of us derive much joy wandering through a market place in a foreign city square among the rows of vendors in small booths.  The day before these Jewish leaders approach Jesus with their question was a wild one for money changers and other vendors at the Temple market place.  It was the Sunday before Passover and a country Rabbi from Galilee went ballistic on them overturning tables, kicking seats out from under them, and chasing them out of the temple; the Rabbi was this Jesus of Nazareth everyone was talking about.

The next morning Jesus was back at the temple teaching; I wonder if any of those money changers and vendors driven from the temple found a new location outside the temple precinct; did they nervously guard their booth as Jesus passed by them on his way to the temple the next morning.   No doubt there was a loss of revenue to the temple treasury that in some measure prompted the Jewish leaders to question Jesus’ authority; you can easily imagine that vendors paid a premium for an “inside-the-temple” location.  To be sure Jesus would have been annoyed at any unscrupulous business practices; the driving reason for his actions was the disrespect for God—“My house shall be called a house of prayer”, said God; these people made it anything but.

So when the chief priests and elders of the people ask Jesus, by what authority are you doing these things, one of the “things” they have in mind was this relocation of the money changers and other vendors.  But that wasn’t the only thing.  Matthew tells us that after the vendors had been dispatched that the blind and lame came to Jesus in the temple, and he cured them and that these leaders saw the amazing things he did.  Further, Jesus takes up a place in the temple to teach; who gave you, Jesus, the authority to assume a rabbinical teaching post; it one thing to go from village to village in the rural backwaters of Galilee that nobody cares about—but this is the Jerusalem temple.

2.  Credentials was part of the question to Jesus was about who authorized him, where did you get your degree, so to ask.  Rabbis in Jesus day were identified by who taught them; they traced their lineage of thought back in history to important figures (Moses, Elijah) through the line of teachers descending in time through Israel’s history.  It would not be dissimilar to the way the Roman Catholic Church traces the line of Popes back to the Apostle Peter; or the way churches ordain priests and ministers by the laying on of hands by a Bishop or other leader.

In entering the ministry of the United Church of Canada, that I was required to hold a particular academic degree was one matter; what also was also of importance was the accreditation of the school where I earned the degree.  One wonders how Jesus would fare with ordination requirements of many churches; still, standards and credentials are not necessarily bad things.  What is clear in the story is that the Jewish leaders were hoping to use what they perceived to be Jesus’ lack of appropriate credential to discredit him.

Knowing the intent of their question Jesus responded “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. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?”  Is Jesus being evasive here?  Consider Jesus’ question to these enquirers; why does Jesus ask them a question about how they regarded John the Baptist?

Recall that it was John the Baptist who baptized Jesus.  The gospels all tell us that this is the event that launches Jesus into his public ministry; it was here that the voice from heaven can be heard—this is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.   Jesus carries forward the essence of John’s message—repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.   John is identified as the one the prophet Isaiah spoke about—the voice of one crying out in the wilderness “prepare the way of the Lord”.   In his question Jesus identifies his credentials.

The question Jesus probes with these leaders is their attitude towards his credentials.  Jesus is not saying that credentials don’t matter.  Jesus doesn’t ask us to throw our lot in with him without consideration for who he is.  For these inquirers Jesus’ credentials don’t matter; they have already made their decision about Jesus.  I think it good to note here that Jesus’ readiness to answer depends on the attitude of the hearers; the right to know is not independent of what one intends to do with the knowledge sought.

In Psalm 22, for example, we read the cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  It is the heart cry of David in despair at the circumstances that confront him—a cry taken up on the lips of Jesus on the cross.  It is not a cry of unbelief because the expectation is that God hears the prayer.  God answers that question with his salvation (resurrection).  But the same question can be uttered as a condemnation of God; even as a word to deny God’s existence.  It is unbelief that prevents us hearing God’s desire to save.

3. These Jewish leaders revealed their hearts in their response to Jesus’ question with a feigned agnosticism: “we do not know”.  They in fact had decided in advance with respect to Jesus; he was a fraud and danger to their well being.  Jesus refused to tell them.  This isn’t because Jesus wasn’t forthcoming about his authority.  According to Matthew Jesus said “All things have been handed over to me by my Father” (11:27) and that “all authority in heaven and in earth has been given to me” (28:18).  When he preached people remarked that “he taught them as one having authority”, meaning that he didn’t appeal to other accepted authorities as the scribes did when they taught. (like quoting an expert in a particular field).  Our postmodern era has effectively responded to Jesus the same as these Jewish elders; by rejecting that any authority actually exists but is merely a construct of the powerful, Jesus’ claim to authority is swept aside.  (The problem being the claim no authority exists is a claim to hold some authority)

In an essay in the book A Place for Truth, Tim Keller writes that he often hears people say, "I don't know which religion is true" or "No one can know the truth." According to Keller, this often leads to a conversation that goes something like this:  I'm talking to someone who does not believe in Christianity or Christ. At some point he or she responds to me suddenly, "Wait a minute, what are you trying to do to me?"  I respond, "I'm trying to evangelize you." "You mean you're trying to convert me?" "Yeah." "You're trying to get me to adopt your view of spiritual reality and convert me?"  "Yeah."

"How narrow! How awful! Nobody should say that their view of spirituality is better than anybody else and try to convert them to it. O no, no, no. Everybody should just leave everybody else alone."

"Wait a minute …" I say. "You want me to adopt your take on spiritual reality; you want me to adopt your view of all the various religions. What are you doing to me? What you're saying is, you have a take on spiritual reality, and you think I would be better off and the world would be better off if we adopted yours. If you say, 'Don't evangelize anybody,' that is to evangelize me, into your Western, white, individualistic, privatized understanding of religion."

I think Keller is right on this point.  I often find myself as a Christian on the defensive; the posture of the world seems to be that there is something defective about believing.  This posture is akin to the posture of these elders questioning Jesus; the decision about Jesus is already made—he has no authority.

Is God merely a figment of faith as some assert?  Does Jesus really have a legitimate claim on your life?  Jesus Christ confronts the modern world just as he did in first century Israel—his authority ever makes it demand of us—will I believe him or no.  His authority is reality, the gospel declares; it is we humans who construct fake realms upon self-appointed iffy authority.

Jesus’ refusal to answer these elders isn’t a rejection of them; it is to wake them up to a possibility they refuse to entertain because Jesus makes clear his connection to heaven in the parable he goes on to speak to them.  I ever marvel at Jesus’ kindness in enduring our rejection and questioning and contradiction of his authority.  (I am not nearly so patient; when someone makes the accusation that Christians are unthinking with great relish I am prone to seize this as opportunity to point out the stupidity of their own thinking.)

One day Jesus restored the sight of a man born blind; the synagogue leaders when to great lengths to ignore the obvious—they said the man wasn’t really blind, that he was healed on the Sabbath against work protocols, that the man was a sinner because he was born blind and therefore too evil to judge whether Jesus was from God or not—any explanation except that Jesus was from God.  The day before these elders question Jesus’ authority they not only saw Jesus clear the temple, they also watched as Jesus healed blind and lame people.  Even this cannot get them to entertain something else about Jesus so fixated are they in their blind opposition to him.  Even still, Jesus’ desire for them is for their good.

4.  Jesus asks these leaders (and us for that matter) to consider a parable.  ‘What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, “Son, go and work in the vineyard today.” He answered, “I will not”; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, “I go, sir”; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?’

It is clear from the application that Jesus makes he likens these leaders to the second son who said he would go but did not.  Truly I tell you, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For 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.

I can hear the response of the elders—when did we ever refuse God?  These are the good guys who keep the law scrupulously.  “We said yes to the father and we worked the vineyard as promised!” They did not believe John (or Jesus) that they too needed to repent.

It is also important to note that Jesus is not declaring some virtue in being a prostitute or a tax collector who defrauded the public.  The prostitutes and tax collectors went into the kingdom ahead of the self-righteous because they repented—turned from their life away from God to walk in company with God.  These were the people who truly knew they had nothing to bring to God; they knew themselves sinners—that they had nothing with which to bargain their way into heaven.

Here again we are confronted by Jesus’insistence that  no one has anything to bargain with—that even these squeaky clean elders needed cleansing as much at these tax collectors and prostitutes.

On December 30th, 2008 a man in Scotland got an incredible shock when he logged into his bank account inline; his bank account at Barclay’s bank showed him to be 100 Billion pounds (144 billion dollars) overdrawn.  He had not overspent that much on Christmas. Bank officials identified a technical error that showed some customer accounts to be overdrawn; the bank corrected the error and apologized for any inconvenience this may have caused customers.

Jesus’ insistence that the “squeaky clean” need to repent hits us like this bank customer; there must be some error on their part that shows me overdrawn.  The truth is we have little apprehension of sin’s debt; of the true extent of the corruption of our hearts—we get a hint of its enormity at the cross where we see its awful cure.  Our sinfulness is such that we are overdrawn and it’s not an accounting error on God’s part; like a bank account $100 billion overdraw—impossible to repay.  There is One who can pay it, the price was Christ crucified.  Four days after this encounter with  these elders Jesus would pay the debt on the cross; it was as much for these elders as the prostitutes and tax collectors.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.