An immediate memory comes to mind whenever we come around to hearing this passage from Matthew. I am sitting in the Chapel of the Good Shepherd at General Seminary, I’m a senior and
listening with rapt attention to my academic advisor and the Dean of Students, The Rev. Titus Pressler, preach on this passage. Repeatedly, he bangs his hand on the pulpit while emphasizing the word – exousia, exousia –Greek for authority.
“What authority does Christ claim in your life? What authority does God have? Just as Jesus is asked we too have to ask ourselves, by what authority are you doing these things?” Pressler insisted with prophetic intensity.
I heard a lot of sermons preached in that chapel. Like you, I imagine, not all sermons stick. And it’s not always immediately evident why some do and some don’t. I don’t remember anything else about that sermon, not any good news or uplifting message, just that word – exousia. Authority is not something perhaps, I had ever given much thought toward.
Maybe another reason it landed was I was sitting in the place where, theoretically, I was being formed in a tradition of authority. A tradition that would convey upon me in short order the authority to pronounce forgiveness, proclaim the good news, and make holy and sacred bread and wine. More importantly the authority to create sacred spaces and community. The sacramental act of consecrating holy moments.
That is what believe clergy do much of the time. We bear witness to sacred once-in-a-lifetime moments of welcome, of commitment, of saying goodbye. We name in liturgy and prayer the ever-present authority of God made known when just two or three are gathered, the authority of faithful assurance that God is always there.
It was extraordinary what Jesus had been up to right before the exchange in this text, right before the questions he was asked, “By what authority are you doing these things? Who gave you this authority?”
Authority is an intangible weight, or responsibility, or gift, or joy. Authority is held, bestowed, transferred, shared. Authority is contested, railed against, the antithetical starting point for teenage rebellion. Authority is individual and communal. It gives us personal autonomy and agency in our lives. Together we share it and utilize authority to build a society we want to live in.
This memory of exploring authority from a pulpit I think pops up for me because it feels a scary topic to explore right now. In a time and place where a shared sense of authority is constantly being questioned, some would say absent. This often expressed awareness that we used to have “it” – this collective agreement about the ways things are and the way things are supposed to be – and, even before pandemic, that “it” was changing, failing and faltering – in institutions and in people.
And now, during pandemic when our convenience, control and comfort is not what it was, when tragedy and uncertainty are ongoing daily realities, we find ourselves moving towards some big events where, collectively, authority is voted upon, acknowledged, accepted – or not. Not surprising to me that the questions to Jesus resonate.
Jesus’ authority is being questioned by anxious people in anxious times. The Pharisees question is not out of the blue. This is chapter 21 so Jesus has been up to all sorts of good trouble before now.
But the “things’ the religious authorities are referring to are specific. Jesus has just made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, our Palm Sunday. The people shouting, “Hosanna in the highest, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”
And, if you’ve ever read the book, The Last Week by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan you’ll know that Jesus came into Jerusalem, on the lowly donkey to the waving of palms and shouts of Hosanna on one side of the city at an entry point that was not inconsequential.
At the same time entering the city from the other side was the emperor. The ruler not on anything lowly but flanked by armies and chariots.
That was a bold move by Jesus and those crowds and definitely a direct confrontation with authority. The religious authorities surely noticed.
The second important preceding “thing” is once he get into Jerusalem – guess where he went first? Yes, the temple the seat of religious authorities. An authority he disregarded with riotous fervor in overturning all those tables, shouting, “stop making my house a den of robbers. For my Father’s house is a house of prayer.”
Now I want to be very clear here: Jesus is questioning the authority of systems – not people. His actions, his protests symbolize that more than tables need to be overturned. The systems in place are not the way his Father would have it.
When people start feeling anxious about the system around them being questioned, often they try and point a finger at person. If blame can be laid at one person’s feet, that stops everyone from looking at the bigger picture. This is what the Pharisees attempt with their question.
Looking for a wrong answer they ask a win/lose question. One they can point to and say, “See, I told you this guy is all about himself and claiming power.” But their blame game doesn’t work.
Jesus, sage that he is, always responds to these types of questions, i.e. who is my neighbor, who is the greatest, when are you coming back, with parables.
Parables paint a picture of a reality that is bigger than an individual. Parables describe the system of the kingdom of God, how God intends the world to be if God we gave God the authority to run the show.
And like God’s authority in our lives, the authority of a parable is determined by the listener. A parable is really an invitation. Is this a reality I want? Is it a reality that calls me? That I will work towards? On earth as it is in heaven?
As parables go, this one is pretty straightforward. The kingdom of God is made available for and to those who live it. It doesn’t matter what we say as much as it matters what we do. Our actions speak louder than words. God is the Father in this parable – and apparently God doesn’t care how many times we say – no, nope, not gonna do it – not going to go – not going to do what you ask of me.
The grace and generosity of God is that we can always change our mind, or I should say, our heart. We can always turn towards seeing God’s reality, turn and repent.
Individually, we are not responsible for everything, we are not responsible for all the systems. We can choose to see them, we can choose to go into the field and do that work. And we can decide if bringing in the kingdom is something we want to do, a reality we want to live.
Gandhi once said – “‘The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.”
That is what Jesus was pointing to his entire life, especially with the “things” he was doing that upset the authorities of his day. As we continue to determine who has authority over us and our society may we prayerfully and courageously consider actions that reflect the authority we claim Jesus holds in our lives. Amen.