On whose authority?

25 September 2011
Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 21A (RCL)
Exodus 17:1-7
Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16
Philippians 2:1-13
Matthew 21:23-32

The exchange between Jesus and the officials in this passage of Matthew is almost worthy of John’s Gospel. Jesus answers a different question from the one they asked. They ask him on what authority he is doing “these things.” Since this is located in Matthew’s Gospel almost immediately after the cleansing of the Temple, we can assume that is what they mean by “these things.” The question of authority would be very important in this case. And probably also not historical. If Jesus really did cleanse the Temple during the festival, I have a hard time imagining that the Roman authorities would have waited around for him to spend another week teaching in the Temple.

But, in the discourse between the Jewish synagogue and the Jesus people that would have followed on the destruction of the Temple, I can imagine a discourse about authority when the Christians claimed to be continuing the institution of sacrifice (in their eucharist) apart from the Temple. Jesus claimed to replace the Temple as the central institution of the worship of God. On what authority?

Jesus deflects the question: John’s baptism, was it from heaven or of human origin? The answer is not clear. John’s movement was another movement that sought to purify the people, to disentangle the institutions of worship from Roman involvement. John took people out across the Jordan, and then brought them back, signaling a new possession of the land. If it was from God, then the Temple was corrupt. If from human origin, then why did the sinners, particularly those who had little choice, find it attractive?

If we believe that God can do a new thing, can take us in a new direction, then we have to be willing to live with some uncertainty. If the destruction of the Temple isn’t just the end of things, then we have to find some authority somewhere to go in a new direction. The scriptures, which pointed to the Temple as the intended institution of God’s worship, won’t point us where we need to go, without some interpretation. So, who is going to do that? The pharisees reread scripture and located Wisdom in the writings. The Jesus people reread scripture and located Wisdom in Jesus. On whose authority? Their own, of course.

That’s what’s frightening. We have to be ready to trust the revelation we have from God, even if it’s different from any revelation we’ve had before. We have to test it, see if it fits, and see where it is taking us.

Paul is doing much the same in his farewell letter to the Philippians. On his way to execution, he is giving them everything they need to find their way on their own. Let this mind be among you which was also in Christ . . . This is how you’re going to find your way.

The Children of Israel had a hard time believing that this new way was the right way. It was hard. There were challenges. We might want to think the same thing, but God provided even water from the rock.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *