“By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”
Washington is a power town. We hear the word “power” a lot. Senators and Representatives in the House move about “the halls of power” on Capitol Hill. The President, the Secretary of State and others hold power. This week, we have heard a lot about “air power.” Power. Authority. How are they used? How are they different?
“By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”
In today’s gospel, Jesus stands in the Jerusalem Temple. For centuries, foreign powers have ruled Jerusalem. For centuries, the chief priests of the Jews have ruled the Temple, Israel’s “holiest shrine.” But if we stand with Jesus in today’s gospel, we know that yesterday, Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a colt. As Jesus rode into the city, people spread cloaks or palm branches on the road. They heralded Jesus as a king. Following this little parade, the country boy from Galilee walked up the steps to the Temple Mount. When he saw merchants selling and buying in the temple, he began to overturn tables, set doves free, and caused an uproar. According to Matthew, “the blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he cured them.” [Note: the blind and the lame were considered unclean, so they could not legally come into the temple. But here they were.] Then children roaming around the Temple began to chant what they’d heard at the parade: “Hosanna to the Son of David!”
The chief priests and the scribes could not tolerate all this commotion and breaking of rules. You don’t charge into church and start tearing stuff up and disrupting the liturgy! And what do you mean, “Hosanna to the Son of David!”? Who is this man, and who gave him power? We’re in charge! The official power-holders were angry. They exchanged words with Jesus, who then left the Temple and walked to Bethany, where he spent the night—probably at the home of his friends, Mary, Martha and Lazarus.
Now, the next morning, Jesus returns to the Temple. He resumes teaching. The priests and scribes surround him. “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” In other words, “What we really want to know is ‘Are you the Messiah’ but we don’t dare ask that out loud, because you probably won’t say yes, and if you say no, we are not sure we will believe you. Instead, we will play word games and try to trap you politically. Then we’ll be able to charge you with heresy.”
Of course the underlying issue is authority and power. As bishop and scholar Tom Wright has noted, Jesus walked into the Temple like he owned the place. “The only person who might conceivably have greater authority in the Temple than the high priest was God’s anointed king, the Messiah—if and when he showed up. Nobody knew when that would be. Other would-be messiahs had come and gone. Now here was Jesus behaving as though he had the right to do what only the Messiah could do. So, naturally, they ask him: by what right are you doing all this? And who gave you this right?” The people with official, institutional power are nervous, because this country boy from Galilee has assumed power. If he is who they fear he is, Jesus will change the status quo.
In fact, Jesus already has. With every act of preaching, teaching and healing, Jesus has shown people a new way to hope, to believe, to live. God’s kingdom has come to life in a new way. The Kingdom is here. Right now. In the midst of their struggles to pay their bills and feed their families and take care of their elderly and sick. Jesus says, God is here. Not just in the Jerusalem Temple, in the Court of Priests, not just in the Holy of Holies where only the High Priest was allowed to be. God does not come among you just when you dress right and act right in church. God is with you every day. In the lilies of the field. In sparrows. In the laughter of children. In the breaking of bread at the dinner table.
More to the point, the Kingdom of God that has come to the people means that the officially powerful will have that power ripped from them. God will scatter the proud. Bring down the powerful from their thrones. Lift up the lowly. Fill the hungry with good things. Send the rich people away empty. Rich people are not used to being empty.
Where will that leave the Church elite? With no real power or authority. And they know it. Jesus tells them a little story about two brothers. The father asks one to go work in the vineyard and he rudely says no. But later, he changes his mind, repents, and does what he was asked to do. He goes to work in the vineyard. The other brother says “Sure, I’ll go,” but he never does. So his action—or non-action—says more than his words. The first brother represents the tax collectors, the prostitutes, the people whose daily lives “seemed to be saying ‘No’ to God, but when they heard John [the Baptist] they changed their mind and their lifestyle.”
The second brother represents the Temple elite—the priests and scribes who confront Jesus—because while they sound good and look good and go through the right motions, their actions do not match their words. They had refused to listen to John who challenged them to repent, to change. Now they refuse to see God’s kingdom brought to life in Jesus of Nazareth. The bottom line is that the church officials have power. Yet Jesus—who has no official power—claims his authority.
What is the difference? Some say that power is taken. Authority is given. Authority almost has to be discussed in the context of community, how that authority operates in a particular time and place. For example, as an Episcopal priest, I am under the authority of my bishop. +Marianne has been consecrated as a bishop. I am canonically resident in her diocese. So she has official power over me. Yet what I see is that she seems to know who she is, deep within herself, and that God has given her the authority she claims. From my perspective, she uses that authority wisely. Therefore, I trust her as my bishop. That means that even when I disagree with her decisions, I trust her judgment and authority.
Jesus has power, but it is not official, institutional power, such as that claimed by the scribes and Pharisees. His power and authority come from deep within, because Jesus knows who he is. He knows from whence he really came. He knows the work God has given him authority to do in his time on earth. Further, Jesus trusts that he has done what God has asked him to do. He has done it in such a way that this work will continue after his earthly journey is over.
So do we continue to do God’s work? If so, how might we do this? Perhaps we need to look at the way we live every day. Do you claim the authority God has given you in your baptism? If so, how do you do that? Do you nurture your spiritual self with some prayer and Bible reading every day? Do you strengthen your soul by gathering regularly for worship or fellowship? We say we follow Jesus. Yet do our actions match our words where we are—not just in church, but in the places where we spend our days—in the office or classroom, on the baseball or football field, in the grocery store, at home with our families?
I believe that we Christians have not sufficiently claimed the authority given to us in Christ Jesus. However, that must not be authority in an “exterior” way. We must be careful not to be like the scribes and Pharisees—who cared more about buildings and power and rules than about people’s hearts, souls and spiritual hunger.
Power and authority. The truth is that in the twenty-first century, the institutional Church has virtually no authority in this culture. The number of Spiritual But Not Religious people has grown exponentially. W can you and I do about that? How can we claim our baptismal authority? How can we do what Jesus would do: to reach out in new ways to people whom we have not yet welcomed to this table—the people who are not here today? How might we envision worship in some new ways—possibly the kind of service that enables our children to do what Dr. April Vega noted this week: enable them not only to learn about Jesus, but to love Jesus? How might we shape a new worship service for people who are not familiar with our liturgy or traditions, our Episcopalian We’ve Always Done It That Way kind of service? What might that look like or sound like?
I do not know the answer to those questions. But I do know this: God gave authority to Jesus the Christ to teach, to preach, to heal, to make disciples to bring God’s realm to reality in this world, not in some sweet by and by. Through Jesus, God has given you and me the same authority. As your priest and pastor, I claim that authority today in new ways. As the people of God, baptized with water, anointed with oil, claimed by the Holy Spirit, I challenge you to claim your authority too.
Here is the question: Will you?
© The Rev. Dr. Sheila McJilton
 Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone: Part Two, (Louisville: SPCK/Westminster John Knox Press, 2002,2004), 75.
 Matthew 21:14.
 Ibid., 75.
 Ibid., 76.
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