By What Authority? A Lectionary Reflection

Exodus 17:1-7

Philippians 2:1-13

Matthew 21:23-32

By What Authority?

          Who gave you permission?  Who authorized this activity of yours?  Those are familiar questions we’ve all had to address, whether it was using the kitchen or making a big decision for the company that employs us.  As a historian, my subject area has been the high church elements of the 17th and 18th century Church of England, especially a little group known as the Nonjurors.  Ironically the Nonjurors believed in the divine right of kings but are best known for their refusal to give their allegiance to English monarchs after the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688-1689.  There are few if any advocates of a divine right monarchy.   Now there are despots and tyrants, but they don’t generally use traditional divine right language.  They use the language of power and might to impose their rule on the people.
We who are clergy, for the most part, are called to leadership in the church but the extent of our authority is rather minimal.  It’s more the power of persuasion than anything (yes there are exceptions, but those exceptions tend to be mega-churches pastured by charismatic preachers).   Indeed, one could say that the authority of the clergy has diminished greatly over the past few decades.  This is especially true of those who pastor smaller churches, where authority is minimal but the scope of expected duties is rather broad.   I’m not complaining, you understand, I’m just pointing out the reality. 

           Moses knew something about this crisis of authority.  God called him to lead the people of Israel out of slavery into the Promised Land, but as the Exodus story points out time and again the people didn’t always go along with his directives with happiness and joy.  In fact, they were known to complain and quarrel with him.  In words that more than a few pastors might empathize with, Moses cries out to Yahweh, after the people complain that he had led them out of Egypt to die in the Wilderness of thirst:  What shall I do with this people?  There are almost ready to stone me.”   In Moses’ case Yahweh hears the commotion and offers a solution.  He tells Moses to take the Elders and go ahead of the people to the Rock at Horeb.  There is to take the staff with which he struck the Nile and strike the rock.  When he does this the Rock will burst forth and the people will drink in satisfaction of their thirst. 

            Moses did as he was told – he was obedient after all – and the water came and the people were satisfied, but Moses memorialized their rejection of his authority and God’s authority by naming the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested Yahweh.  This test came in the form of a question:  “Is the Lord among us or not?”  The question came after many evidences, from the plagues to the parting of the sea and on to the provision of manna and quail.  It wasn’t the first time they complained and it wouldn’t be the last.

            Paul again writes a very different piece from that found in the Exodus story, though we can sense the possibility that dissension was present in the Philippian community, Paul’s appeal isn’t to the miraculous provision of water, but to the example of Jesus, who “he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited.”   Paul appeals to the people to make his joy complete by being of the same mind and love and that they would be of one accord, “doing nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than ourselves.”  It is a call to humility and service.   There is a call to obedience – to Paul – but it is an obedience to his teaching about Jesus, who is the one who became a servant and died upon a cross, and then in God’s timing was “highly exalted” and given a name that is higher than any other, “so that at the name of Jesus, every knee should bend, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”  It is an authority that is rooted in humble service, but that ends in glory.  It isn’t a coercive power, but one that invites us to acknowledge the one who died on a cross.  And in the end, as we follow this one whom God has raised up in glory, we will experience our healing and work for God’s good pleasure.  Our mission as God’s people will fail, Paul seems to say, if we can’t follow the lead of Jesus and put our own interests behind those of our neighbors. 

As I hear this call to a different kind of authority my mind drifts back to my youth when it seemed that the constant refrain of my pastor at the time was submission to the pastor.  It seemed to be of great importance.  We’d go away to college, come back for a holiday, and the theme would be the same.  Of course such a tenor in preaching gave evidence that there were problems in the church, issues of authority.  I don’t know all the details, nor do I want to know, but when your preaching is focused on convincing the church to submit, you’ve missed the point.  Yes, sometimes the people will try to stone you, as Moses knew all too well, but there is one we can all learn from, whether “in authority” or not – Jesus the Christ, the one who emptied himself of all trappings of authority, so that we might know oneness in the Spirit.

In the Gospel lesson, religious leaders – those who are in authority – come to Jesus as he is teaching in the Temple and demand to know “by what authority are you doing things, and who gave you this authority?”   Now, they were, technically, in charge of the Temple.  If someone was going to offer a “bible study” or do some service projects in the building, then they should have been consulted.  It would have been the polite thing to do, except I’m not sure that Jesus acknowledged their authority to oversee the Temple.  You see, their authority came more from the Romans than either from God or the people.  They were what you would call collaborators.  Now, such a role is not surprising.  I think in many ways the religious leaders cared about their faith, but they were afraid that if rabble-rousers like Jesus got the people stirred up, then the Romans would not only take away their “authority” but might even do some damage to the religious infrastructure – both personnel and property.  In the end, we do know what happened when rabble-rousers stirred up the people.  Less than a half-century after the death of Jesus and before this Gospel was written, the Romans destroyed the city and with it the Temple, a Temple that had become, with Herod’s help one of the great wonders of the ancient world.  So, by whose authority do you do this teaching in this place? 

Jesus’ answer to this question of authority essentially turned things upside down.  I’ll tell you about where I got this authority if you’ll answer this question – Did John’s baptism come from heaven or is it a human act?  The leaders are placed in a bind.  If they answer that it had divine authorization (heaven = God), then Jesus will ask them why they didn’t heed John’s call to repentance.  But if they say John acted on human authority (his own authority) then the people will get upset, because they believed him to be a prophet of God.  So, seeing no way out they decided to plead the fifth!   They couldn’t rightly say what the source of John’s authority was.  With this answer, Jesus says that he will not answer the question. 

Due to their unwillingness to answer Jesus tells a parable.  It’s about two sons whom a father sent into the vineyard to do a little work.  The first son told his father that he’d rather not, but later reconsidered, and went into the vineyard and did the work he at first had refused to do.  The second son said he would go, but before he could make his way to the vineyard got a call on his cell phone and decided to go into town for a good time.  And Jesus says:  Which of these sons did the will of the father?   With this question, in Matthew’s gospel, comes an interpretation.  Speaking to the religious leaders who professed their undying love of God, and who had heard the call to ministry and had gone through the necessary training, but when the chips were down they didn’t come through.  They exchanged their calling for human glory.  If they failed, then a different group of people would be welcomed into the realm of God.  Yes, tax collectors and prostitutes may have chosen an unrighteous occupation, but unlike the religious leaders they heard John’s message and embraced it by being baptized for the forgiveness of sins.  The leaders, those in authority, Jesus said, could have embraced John; they chose not to do so.  They didn’t change their minds and believe. 

By what authority do you act?  Is it by human authority or divine authority?  And how do you really know, except by the fruit of one’s actions.  Although I believe in grace, very much so, James may be on to something in reminding us that without tangible expression of our faith, our faith is really pretty much dead.  If it doesn’t lead to transformed lives, then why bother?  Just sayin!  (I borrow this little response from Sharon Watkins, General Minister of my denomination!)


David said…
The "Golden Rule" covers it- especially as it relates to the least fortunate.
Anonymous said…
Thank you, Bob. Really helpful. I like where you land:
By what authority do you act? Is it by human authority or divine authority? And how do you really know, except by the fruit of one’s actions.
That fruit is very important, and we all ought to work on cultivating perception of it. (Which also seems a gracious gift from above.)
Scott White, APC, Escanaba

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