October 1, 2017

By What Authority

Passage: Exodus 17:1-7, Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16, Philippians 2:1-13, Matthew 21:23-32
Service Type:

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?’

The fast food giant Burger King drew open criticism earlier this year from another king—King Phillipe of Belgium. Set to open its first location in Belgium, Burger King launched an online publicity campaign that asks users “Who’s the King?” and allows them to vote for who they want to be their king; a cartoonized version of the real Belgian King Phillipe or the fictional Birger King. “Two kings, one single crown, who shall reign?” asks the website. Unfortunately for the advertising campaign ― as playful as it may be ― it’s reportedly broiled more than just burgers. The Belgian Royal family was not amused at the use of royal images; a family spokesperson stated that “since it was for commercial purposes, we would not have given our authorisation.” It appears that the royal family agrees with Burger King on at least one point—there can be only one king.

It is the day following Jesus’ triumphal entry to Jerusalem and his cleansing of the temple in which he drove out those who were selling and buying. Jesus has returned to the temple and he is teaching the people gathered there. Many would be his followers. Some would be interested pilgrims who have come for Passover and having heard of Jesus are interested to hear what he has to say. The chief priest and the elders of the people—who have a keen sense of their positions of authority they are unwilling to share—these leaders come with their question, ‘By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?’

AS we probe this story of our Lord’s response to this question I ask you to keep a question in mind; a question that is as relevant for us today as it would have been for those gathered to hear Jesus teach in the temple precincts. “Does Jesus have a legitimate claim upon my life?’

1. From the perspective of the gospel writer, this incident is dripping in irony. Jesus has come to the temple, the place that God promised to “set his name.” (2 Chronicles 6:20) While God was not limited to any location the Israelite knew in faith God promised to meet her here for sure. The gospels declare that Jesus is God come among us taking on human flesh. The picture, then, the writer paints for us is that in Jesus God has come to his own temple to teach and these leaders come and ask “by what authority?’ The God the chief priests claim to worship; the God whose authority they think they represent; this one is before them and they ask for his teaching credentials.

We mustn’t make the mistake of thinking that our Lord coming to his temple is limited in scope to some religious thing or category. It is all of that and more. In John’s gospel we are told that this Jesus who has come among is our creator. “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. … He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.” (John 1:3, 10)

Think about how we question the authority of our Creator. We wonder why he made us one way and not another. If God loved us at all God would never allow bad things to happen. C.S. Lewis in book Surprised by Joy tells of his own faith story; of abandoning the Christian faith of his childhood for atheism and then his later awakening to faith in Jesus Christ. In his early rejection of Christian faith he said he resented being created in the world without his consent.

Jesus coming to his temple is at once this God entering his temple coming to his people and God our Creator coming into the world that was made through him and for him. Does Jesus—this Jesus—have a legitimate claim upon my life? The event that fills the horizon of all biblical thought is the event of the cross. The cross embodies two unalterable truths: God’s judgement and God’s mercy. In the light of the cross we are brought up short to know we have to do with the just judge who has secured a conviction against us — even as we are brought up short to find ourselves pardoned. Or to move from the courtroom to the hospital. God comes among us to disclose the fatal disease that is our sin so that God might administer the cure secured for us at the cross where God pours himself without remainder for our sakes.

And we sinful humans respond with questioning his authority. What right do you have to claim such things over our lives? I’m not diseased. I’m a moral person, you have no case against me. That God’s grace must overcome our opposition to God so that we might believe in him exposes the depth of the depravity in which we are mired.

2. Jesus responds to this question posed by the chief priests and elders of the people —in reality a challenge of his authority—with a question of his own. A question that could be posed to us as well—so what authority will you accept as legitimate? But first, consider the question Jesus asks his questioners about John the Baptist.

“Jesus 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. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?’” So why does Jesus focus on the ministry of John the Baptist? John had this wilderness ministry of calling people to repent and be baptized as a sign of their purpose to turn from sin to serve God in preparation for the coming Messiah. Matthew tells us that the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to John, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. (Matthew 3:5-6)

Jesus went to John to be baptized by him. It was sign that Jesus would carry on the ministry of John the Baptist. The authority of a rabbi or teacher like Jesus was through the one who commissioned them to their work or who taught them. It functioned akin to our ordination. Ministers ordained to the ministry of word and sacrament (as I am) are commissioned by those who went before them who were similarity commissioned by their predecessors. It carries with it a kind of authority. So the elders and chief priests might be understood to ask, where did you get your ordination or where did you get your degree. By mentioning John the Baptist Jesus claims that his authority comes from the same source.

So he asks, “.Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” This is a loaded question, as you can see. It was a well-known fact that the chief priests had despised John the Baptist. Listen to the sample Matthew gives us of John’s rather direct preaching when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance.” Credentials, advanced theological degrees, and their Sanhedrin “Members Only” gold card cut no ice with John nor, John said, did it matter to God. Even the leaders were called to submit to John’s baptism of repentance the same as everyone else.

Notice how simply yet how profoundly Jesus gets right to the issue at hand; from heaven or of human origin. The chief priests and elders are now on the spot. So they huddle recognizing the implications in answering directly Jesus’ question. If we say, on the one hand, “from heaven” then Jesus will ask why we did not believe John. If on the other hand we say ‘of human origin”—i.e. John was a fraud—then this crowd of people will turn against us because they believed John.” So they chose agnosticism to cover for their deliberate unbelief. “We don’t know.”

We might think that this question about authority peculiar to Jesus’ day or bygone era. We live in an post-modern era that has crowned the individual their own highest authority. We can vote for Burger King or the King of Belgium; it doesn’t matter because we can make it up as we go. Assigning to ourselves sole authority leaves us in that awful place that nothing really matters. Personal preference dictates all. If we make our own meaning that nothing really means anything until we assign it to be so. Is there a way out of the prison of personal authority?

The gospel asserts that the answer is not found looking within ourselves but must come from outside the prison. The human beginning from themselves will never come to discover the meaning of their own existence. It can only be revealed to us. So Jesus’ question is as relevant today as then. Is Jesus from heaven, or was it of human origin?” What authority will you and me accept? Making ourselves final arbiters isn’t working so well for humanity.

3. I began by asking us to hold this question in our minds. “Does Jesus have a legitimate claim upon my life?’ The gospel asserts that because all authority in heaven and earth rests in him that indeed his claim of our lives is legitimate. We next explored the source of Jesus’ authority in his question—from heaven. His call to believe him is from God. And finally we note that he calls to believe.

Some say that Jesus’ is simply being clever by his answer to put the onus on these leaders to declare directly what authority they will accepts before he commits to direct answer. But I believe he does answer. They know that Jesus thinks John’s baptism was from heaven and thus claims the same for his own ministry. Jesus did answer their question, they just didn’t like the answer nor accept the answer.

But Jesus isn’t done with them. They won’t answer yet our Lord presses on with them. “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?’ They said, ‘The first.’”

Now Jesus has them agreeing with him. What he says next may sound harsh to us but it is no more or less blunt than John the Baptist had been. ‘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. Jesus calls them to believe. There is still time to change their minds.

Please note that Jesus’ provocative pronouncement that the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you wasn’t because they were a better class of people than these leaders. It was because they changed their minds and believed John’s message of God’s amnesty. Again I note the generosity of our Lord’s good news that is for anyone who would believe, without exception.