GOSPEL: Matthew 21:23-32
23When [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?” 24Jesus 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. 25Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?”
“Who gave you the authority?”
A question that is floating around our world a lot these days.
Our relationship to authority has changed dramatically over the past months. Back in the “before time” it was rare that we had to listen to some kind of authority tell us how to go about some of the most mundane aspects of our lives, from work, to school, to groceries to, to eating out with friends. Now there are now a myriad of authorities that we need to consult to go about our daily lives, from political leaders, to public health officials, to business owners, to those in charge of organizations and institutions, to the person telling us to hand sanitize when we walk into the electronics store.
Authority and living our lives by stricter rules then we are used to is everywhere now. How we relate to authority is a constant calculation.
And so here we are, well on our way towards the end of the church year, with Thanksgiving, Reformation Sunday, All Saints and Christ the King Sunday on our horizon. When we would normally be settling into new routines, beginning up with all the groups and activities that we took a hiatus from over summer, and we are instead still stuck in a kind of limbo. Not truly opened up and back to normal and nor truly close down and closed off. Somewhere in between trying to figure what we can do in this new world and what we can’t, and how to stay stay safe and keep our neighbour safe.
In the midst of this new world, we encounter Jesus being confronted by the elders and chief priests about his authority. About an issue that we know very well these days.
This confrontation comes in Matthew’s Gospel, it comes from a moment just after Jesus has entered Jerusalem riding a donkey, the prophesied symbolic entry of the promised Messiah of Israel.
From the cheering crowds, Jesus goes to the temple. The elders and chief priests know what Jesus has just done, they know the crowds have been cheering on this would be Messiah. And they also know that as the official gatekeepers of God for the people of Israel, that Jesus has not been sanctioned by the religious authorities to take up the mantel of the Messiah.
But when the temple authorities question Jesus’ authority, Jesus pushes back. He points them to John the Baptist, who was incidentally the son of a temple priest – one of their own. And Jesus declares that John had baptized or anointed him, much like Samuel had anointed King David. Jesus traps his accusers with a question they cannot answer, because it will either get them in trouble with the crowds or undermine their own authority.
Jesus exposes the problem of the priest sand elders – their twisted relationship to power. Their motivation to hold onto power and stay in control, their use of the authority of the temple to control the flow of God’s mercy.
The temple was first built to be God’s dwelling place. To be the place where God’s people would come to receive God’s grace and mercy, to receive forgiveness of sins. And the point of the temple was not to control God’s mercy, but to provide it. To hand it out. To make sure that God’s people could go and receive in concrete and tangible ways, That they always had access to God’s mercy.
Yet, as it often seems to be with humanity, we like to turn points of access into checkpoints and bottlenecks, into points of control and power.
And now Jesus has become a threat to the temple cult, to this carefully crafted system that had been devised and shaped for centuries.
Instead, Jesus was giving access to God out in the world, without the proper authority, without the proper control mechanisms.
Jesus was undermining the whole system, upending the power and control of the temple leaders had over the people of Israel.
Today, we certainly don’t hold that kind of control over people as the Church, at least not in 2020. There have been times over the past 2000 years when the Church has constructed systems of power and control around access to God – as Lutherans we were born out of such a moment in time in the Reformation.
But these days, our place of authority in this world is quite different. We are increasingly being relegated to margins of most of public life.
Yet, our understanding of authority and desire for it is not that much different than that of the temple cult of Jerusalem from 2000 years ago.
Somewhere along the line we too have begun to confuse access to God’s mercy, with power and control over the world around us by gatekeeping God.
We may not exert the same influence, yet still we long to. As churches well into the 21st century, often struggling with our place in the world, it is easy for us to believe that if we only need our authority back, our power and influence over the lives of people around us. If only Sundays could be kept free of sports, shopping and dance lessons, people would have to come to us. If only we had more money flowing to our offering plates, more staff carrying out our programs, more people to serve on committees, we could be an institution of importance again.
As human beings, we often believe that more authority, more power and control, will bring more security, more comfort, and make our lives easier.
And yet, as we watch the pharisees tie themselves in knots working to maintain their power and authority, we know that it is the same for us. That seeking out authority and influence, power and control only makes life more difficult.
As Jesus responds to the elders and chief priests, he puts them on the spot by forcing them to choose between angering the crowds or undermining their own influence. So they choose neither.
And you can see the math going on their heads. If they give up power and authority, than Jesus will gain it. They fear an inversion of the status quo, where all the folks at the bottom will wind up at the top, and the folks on top will fall to the bottom.
Yet, Jesus isn’t seeking a power inversion, he isn’t looking to take the authority of the temple away from the elder and chief priests, at least not directly.
As Jesus continues to speak, he tells a parable about two sons who say one thing and do the other. But it is Jesus declaration that follows about who will gain access to the Kingdom of God that reveals what Jesus is up to.
Jesus subtly names who is the source of that authority and what that authority is doing in the world.
Jesus hasn’t ridden into Jerusalem to turn the existing power structures upside down, but to do away with them entirely.
Jesus is reminding the temple authorities, that their job is not to withhold God’s mercy but to make sure God’s people receive it. Jesus is reminding us that his is out job too.
Because God isn’t putting authority and power into the world, God’s Kingdom isn’t about creating structures for human beings to exploit.
God is the source of is mercy, love, compassion, and grace.
God is putting hope and promise into the world.
Hope found in the Messiah who meets humanity in flesh.
Promise that the powers and authorities of this world are not the ultimate ones.
Compassion given through disciples delivering good news in word and action.
Love granted by the nearness of Christ to God’s beloved children.
Mercy for the suffering and down trodden given by the Messiah who has found a wayward creation.
And Grace, Grace on its way, on its way to Good Friday, on its way to that morning of the Third day.
God is in our world filling it and us with the power of life and new life found only in God.
And so as we crave influence and control of the world around us, as we wish for just enough power to be comfortable and to not have to worry…
Jesus still brings us the good news of forgiveness for sinners, mercy for the suffering, and life for the dying anyways.
The church may never be as powerful and influential as it once away, we may never be an important authority in this world again in our lifetimes… but God the gospel of Jesus Christ, the good news of God’s love for all of creation and for us….
That is as authoritative as it has ever been, that is the root and source of the power of the Church, of the Body of Christ out in the world.
“Who gave you the authority?”
This is perhaps the question of our time.
And the answer is found in the grace and mercy of God, given to us in Christ.