Matthew 21:23-32 (NRSV)
The Authority of Jesus Questioned
23 When he 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?” 24 Jesus 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. 25 Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ 26 But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” 27 So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.
The Parable of the Two Sons
28 “What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ 29 He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. 30 The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. 31 Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32 For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.
A dispute over authority? I wonder how I will ever find a relevant meaning for the Church today?
This Gospel account takes place just after Jesus has cleansed the Temple in Jerusalem. In fairness to the religious leaders, if they were ever justified in questioning Jesus' authority and his actions, this incident was that moment. It’s certainly his most explosive reaction to injustice and a bold move considering the great reverence the people had for the Temple and the systems surrounding its daily operations. I’m trying to be sympathetic because I recognise a lot of the same ego in these men as I have within myself. It makes me misunderstand authority, leadership and power in many of the same ways as they did.
Ultimately, the only one with authority is the Sovereign God, the King of Kings, the Lord of Lords. Any authority a human possesses emanates from God. No one has any authority except by his will, though sadly, it doesn’t guarantee they will use it well. Jesus is assured within himself of his own identity. He knows the paradoxical truths that he is that same Sovereign God and also that he is the beloved Son of the Sovereign God. From this secure standing, Jesus is unfazed by the attack on his authority. If my authority is attacked I know that I tend to rush to defend my credentials or I counter-attack the aggressor and call into question their knowledge, experience or actions. Jesus, ever gracious, is unperturbed. He even offers a chance at repentance in the truest sense of the word. He offers a question and a story, the two most powerful vehicles to help a soul make the journey of change.
All authority is from God. Authority given to humans is a gift, or perhaps a burden, granted by him in order to serve others. The job of inspiring and organising groups of people is no more or less important than the job of organ-playing, or teaching, or farming. It is the unhappy lot of humanity that we will forever become confused when people obey our orders, thinking that they do so for our sake and our affirmation, when in reality the purpose of a group of people following commands is to achieve a good for the whole community.
The experience of having a group of people respond to your words and actions is utterly addictive. The leaders in this passage, you’ll notice, confer before answering Jesus’ question and their sole concern is to find the answer that will receive the best reaction, rather than finding the correct answer. They’re on a inflatable ring, shades on and cocktail in hand, loving life as they slide down the slippery slope from leading people with great love, to falling in love with being a revered leader.
Jesus rather sternly reminds the religious leaders, by his parable, that their first concern should be with being obedient to God themselves. Instead they got so tangled up in leading the people they became fearful of them and, therefore, useless to them. More galling for the leaders is the suggestion that they have something to learn from those they lead. Jesus hints that the tax collectors and the prostitutes are more practiced in humility and lowliness.
You may not consider yourself a great leader or follower, but no doubt in your home, your family, your place of work or study, there are people who look to you for inspiration and organisation, or who you look to for these things. This encounter teaches us that authority is a morally good thing gifted from God, but that we all have duty to remember we are servants before we are leaders. Those authority figures who are greedy to be worshipped may find they answer God like the priests in this story when they are asked if their authority is from Him or if it is merely human:
“We don’t know.”
Emma Rothwell currently divides her time between the Church of Ireland Dioceses of Meath & Kildare where she is the Diocesan Youth and Children’s Officer and Wilson’s Hospital School where she is the School Chaplain.