Tuesday, October 3, 2023

Musings on Authority


Matthew 21:23-32

Proper 21 / Year A

To better understand today’s gospel reading it is essential to know its context.  In our liturgical calendar it takes place on the Monday in Holy Week.  Just the day before Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey, sending people into a messianic fever.  He enters the Temple and is dismayed by the economic activity and graft surrounding the purchase of sacrificial offerings.  Jesus famously overturns tables, frees animals, and chases away money-changers. 

That was yesterday.  Today, Monday, Jesus returns to the Temple to teach.  One commentator describes Jesus as “occupying” the Temple; an apt description I suspect because the crowds gathered around hold sway over the actions of the religious leaders who fear their reactions. 

Chief priests and elders cautiously confront Jesus.  Over the course of the day, they and other religious leaders will challenge Jesus five times; asking various questions intended to trap him by getting him to say something that will get him in trouble.  This morning’s challenge is the most direct: “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”  They want to know its nature and source.

They are the ones who possess the authority of the institution.  They have been to seminary.  They have been ordained.  They have been installed into various positions within the religious hierarchy.  They have the power to call on the Temple guard and to petition the Roman government to act on their behalf.  Jesus lacks their credentials and resources. 

Throughout his gospel, Matthew demonstrates Jesus’ authority comes from God.  “You are my Son and with you I am well-pleased.”  Jesus manifests his authority with humility, compassion, empathy, wisdom, and integrity.  Essentially, he is living into who he supposed to be and doing what is a called to do and neither is possible if you are not self-authenticating.  You have to discover, then embrace, who you are created to be and what you are called to do.

The first funeral I conducted after being ordained was a graveside service for a person I had never met.  All the family members lived out of the area and so I didn’t know any of them either.  We were all sort of milling around and I remember thinking, “Someone ought to do something.”  Then it occurred to me, “You are the one wearing a collar.  Everyone is waiting on you to get this started.”  Those strangers saw something in me – a person authorized by the church to act as a priest – which I not fully appropriated in myself at that point in time.

I imagine many of you can tell a similar story about the first day of your teaching career or the first day working on a hospital floor or the first time you argued a case or the first time you changed a diaper.  We must grow into the authority we are given.  We must grow in confidence and competence so that the authority we possess is not just something we have been given, but it is also something we believe about ourselves.  This morning we find Jesus fully inhabiting who he is and what he is supposed to do.

Those who come to confront him in today’s reading, as well as the readings in the weeks to come, exhibit the potential pitfalls of authority.  They abuse their power for personal gain and seek to manipulate their followers.  They act dogmatically in order to resist reform and innovation.  They marginalize certain individuals and groups through bias and discrimination.

Always remember, you must be very discerning in who you allow to be a spiritual authority in your life.  You must never blindly follow someone to the exclusion of your own experience and intuition.  Ask if the person is using their authority to exploit others or to help them.  Is he or she genuine and authentic or one person in the public eye and someone totally different out of the limelight? 

An interesting thing is happening conservative churches across our country.  Pastors are reporting parishioners are accusing them of being liberals and pushing a woke agenda.  The interesting thing is this: what they are being criticized for saying is actually teachings Jesus puts forward; love your enemy, turn the other cheek, blessed are the poor, etc.  When pastors try to explain this, more often than not the complainer says something like, “Well, those teachings don’t work anymore.”  It raises an important question for each of us to ponder: Do you allow your own authority to be subservient to Christ’s or do you pick and choose from the bible to validate your own beliefs and agenda?

We believe what St. Paul teaches: one day every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.