And when [Jesus] entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came up to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Jesus answered them, “I also will ask you one question, and if you tell me the answer, then I also will tell you by what authority I do these things. The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?” And they discussed it among themselves, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘From man,’ we are afraid of the crowd, for they all hold that John was a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things. (Matthew 21:23-27 ESV)
What is your reaction to being challenged? We’re not islands but live in communities and what emotions go through your stomach when you have the authority or responsibility for something that requires more than one person and the other person at that moment is being defiant and simply saying ‘No’? How do you feel when your standards or wishes – maybe as a parent or friend or colleague – are ignored or treated with either apathy or contempt? Who likes it? No one.
Now I’m sure we behave differently if it is a 2 year old toddler throwing a temper tantrum or a 17 year old teenager flexing those independent wings or our adult sibling who always take a stance opposite to us. As much as we sometimes joke that we want everyone to do what we say, we grow up knowing that living is a negotiated reality of recognising who has what authority when – the 4th Commandment and Luther’s explanation is very helpful here – but we each have our space – our tiny part of living where even the world says we are the ones with authority and others should defer to us – and what happens when that space is invaded by defiance?
We have a great tendency to fight – to maintain authority of course – never for ourselves – but fight we must – otherwise, we argue, chaos would reign.
Jesus has arrived in Jerusalem on a donkey – the palm branches – a sign of liberation – drives many of the crowd wild with anticipation. He creates a huge commotion by cleansing the temple – by that we mean the Court of the Gentiles which had become a market place but was designed for prayer and as far as the Gentiles could go into the temple precincts. So the market place was a sign of contempt at worse and lack of care at best by the Jews for the Gentiles. In front of the disciples Jesus curses the fig tree – another hugely strong signal that judgement was coming – and now we find Jesus back in the temple precincts – and you’re a chief priest or elder and how are you feeling?
They come up to Jesus. ‘By what authority? What right?’ My guess is that any claim of Jesus’ would have been rejected. They are already feeling threatened and everyone knows the world wisdom that the best defence is to attack. Whatever answer Jesus gives would result in an attack. So he doesn’t give an answer – a statement – but asks a question. Where does John’s baptism come from? It’s a theological question on the surface but it is much more. Taken aback they assess the answer – it is easy to give a theological answer if it has no consequences – but this answer does have consequences – whichever way they answer. Real world consequences that challenge them personally. So they decline to answer – and Jesus declines to answer. What Jesus does do is speak more parables – those stories that can whack you in the back of the head and after two of them – the rest of Matthew 22, the religious leaders perceive that Jesus is still talking about them and they want to arrest him but they’re afraid of the crowd. So they bide their time.
This scene happened a long time ago. The story has been read for nearly 2,000 years. Jesus and the religious leaders is a regular trope where Jesus is the good guy and the religious leaders are the bad and my guess is the most of us put ourselves in the crowd watching. But what if by nature all human beings are viewed as religious leaders – priests of the religion of ‘Me’? Then the story takes a different slant. Today in the west people are often comfortable with Jesus – even the idea of Jesus – the helper God; the one who is supposed to love us. And for the world that love popularly means letting me be me and not saying ‘No’ to me. So people can be comfortable with the Jesus who says to the woman caught in adultery – John 8 – and it is a despicable scene about men, let’s be honest – ‘Neither do I condemn you’ but they cut Jesus off mid sentence because Jesus keeps talking, ‘go, and from now on sin no more’ (John 8:10)! What do we do with Jesus who turns up in our lives – not the hippy Jesus ‘peace and love’ – not the miracle worker Jesus healing – but rather the Jesus who turns up – we didn’t invite him – and tips over tables, chucks out our possessions, and challenges our way of life and even our very view of life? What do we do then? What do we do when life crashes around us and we realise that it is our fault – poor choices, bad patterns of behaviour, and we are feeling the consequences?
And in one sense that is the struggle the sinner George always has with Jesus when he turns up. By what authority?! By what right?!
And the reason we are still talking about Jesus is that he is prepared to with people – work with us – but Jesus’ response to the religious leaders shows us that Jesus will always do so on his terms – and he is adept at skewering us to show the folly of our religion of the self – or if we come from any organised religion. The internal inconsistencies and the threat to our authority in individuals and in the world will be exposed for what they are – false religions, false gods.
For Jesus’ entire ministry he walked on this planet and people challenged him and his authority and he is God. And the mystery is that he never treated people as they deserved. I’ve thought of Jesus on the cross with all the power at his command and I’m sure I would have given myself pain killers and turned the jeering crowds into frogs, popped the nails and floated down to Earth fully restored and growled at the world, ‘Who do you think you are?! I’m your God!’. For the times Jesus’ authority was challenged he never responded from the place we went to at the beginning of our service – from me-land – but he always responded from love – the love of the other, the love of the enemy. He didn’t dodge the fight or the truth that needed to be said or revealed but he didn’t do for his sake – he did everything for our sakes.
We can attempt this behaviour but as much as we try to implement it, we will always fail when the centre within is me and my authority. But when the centre is love and the other then we can use our authority to serve and not to defend ourselves. How can the centre of our lives be love and the other – when we are by nature selfish and unclean? Because in the waters of baptism Jesus gives us his life – we are new creations – and we now seek to live to that reality. That’s why we read his Word – to hear from the outside of us God who speaks against so much of what we say to ourselves on the inside. And that’s why we commune to meet the one who has all power and yet rolls up his sleeves and gets water and washes our feet and then hosts us at his table with the mysterious meal of himself. So we can go out into the world – into our relationships and circumstances to live this Jesus’ life – and to serve. And this freedom to do so is something the world can never take away from us.
- Matthew 21:23 - 27