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Oct 01, 2017

By What Authority?

By What Authority?

Passage: Matthew 21:23-32

Speaker: Father Will Lowry

Series: All

Category: All

Well, our friends at the lectionary have done it again. You’ve probably heard me complain before about their lack of providing just a little less than enough - on occasion for our Sunday lessons.

Today’s Gospel lesson from Matthew is about Authority. But what the fine folks at the lectionary don’t do is give us the background about why there is even an argument about power between Jesus and the temple authorities in the first place.

For that we have to rewind a little bit to Matthew 21:12-17.

Then Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold doves. He said to them, ‘It is written, “My house shall be called a house of prayer”; but you are making it a den of robbers.’ The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he cured them. But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the amazing things that he did, and heard the children crying out in the temple, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David’, they became angry and said to him, ‘Do you hear what these are saying?’ Jesus said to them, ‘Yes; have you never read,“Out of the mouths of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise for yourself”?’ He left them, went out of the city to Bethany, and spent the night there.


So, Jesus leaves and comes back in the morning, curing the fig tree on the way, and then our Gospel lesson for today happens.

“By what authority do you do all of this and who the heck gave it to you?”

“By what authority?” now there’s a good question.

Authority is a question of the present, past, and future.

We live at a time when authority is questioned daily, and perhaps rightfully so. And it’s nothing new, according to this passage from Matthew. And, to an extent, those in power at the temple had every right to question Jesus’ authority.

After all Jesus’ claims were quite insensitive and just how could He justify them? But, before we go ahead and vilify the chief priests and the elders, we should be honest - to be fair, their question is often our question.

There are many who claim authority and do it rather aimlessly. Some get authority based on a position to which they are elected or appointed. And yet, they do not have to prove or justify that their authority is deserved. In fact, they might very well find that this assumed authority could be rejected. Just because a person holds a position that has had a history of authority doesn’t necessarily mean that authority is granted to them. To hold real authority and not just wield power, authority has to be granted by others.

Real authority is proven, tested, lived. Otherwise, others have every right to say “no” to it, to question it, to resist it. They say, “You do not get to authorize my life. You do not get to author how I make sense of my life. You do not get to assume my automatic acquiescence to your authority.”

Sometimes, we preachers are granted authority. But Jesus’ words this week remind us too that we can never presume that authority, or take it for granted. It astounds me how many preachers do it, and it saddens me. To claim the authority of God and to have little sense of what it really means happens more than it ought. And when personal authority begins to creep in or take the place of God’s authority it is big trouble. Again, that is the difference between power and authority. Power is taken and wielded: Authority is given and is about trust.

Authority, whether priestly, or laity is sacred. And I mean that. When we are invited into the thin places and spaces that are holy in other people’s lives we are given an authority. Those whom we are in relationship with are making themselves vulnerable to us. And as soon as we think we deserve to be there, we have violated that space.

It’s different from saying we belong there, because we do. But, rather than it being our choice we are invited in by an authority that exists outside of ourselves.

As a priest, my sermons have absolutely no authority at all if they do not compel you to live your faith. As Christians, our faith has no authority at all if it does not inform our living. That means listening to Jesus - reading the bible, working to understand it and it’s tenants, but perhaps even more so - being in relationship with Jesus. My words, whether in a sermon, a class, or conversation have no authority at all if they do not articulate what it looks like to embody faith in the real world.

True authority demands a perceived and palpable connection between who a person is and what a person does. This also means that we have to be in relationship - a loving, life giving, and compassionate relationship.

This is, in part, what Jesus is saying. There is a correlation between word and deed, between ideas and implementation, between vision and action. Authority should only be granted when there is integrity.

If people enter into positions of authority with nary a nod to how their words are lived out, their authority should be questioned. I think that is what Jesus is saying here.

When Jesus asks the question about John’s baptism the elders and chief priests He is challenging their authority. He is saying, you have not practiced what you preach. You are acting in a manner that is inconsistent with the what God has asked. Instead, you asserted power that was not yours to begin with.

I said a few minutes ago that part of my job as a priest is to give you real world expressions of what faith - what being in relationship with God - looks like. Now, I’m not presumptuous enough to think that you don’t know what being in relationship with God is like - I mean you’re here for a reason, and it’s very likely not just to listen to me.

What I do want to do is to have you think about what you give authority to in your life - have you think about what or who tries to assert power over you. And we should all consider what or whom we assume to have authority over in our lives. How do we define our relationships and how are they informed by Jesus and the Gospels? How does our faith inform those relationships? How does God, whom we’ve all given authority to over our lives by being followers of Jesus, what does that relationship mean for our relationships with each other?

Where does authority and power fit into each of these relationships? Are we following our will or God’s will? Are we assuming power or being granted authority?

If the Gospels and the life and ministry of Jesus inform us in those relationships and we are seeking to follow that example then there is a good chance we are not assuming authority or using power. There’s a good chance we are giving authority to God over our lives rather than trying to authorize God to be in our lives. And that is the answer that Jesus gives to the chief priests and the elders.