By what authority?

1 October 2017
Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 21A (RCL)
Exodus17:1-7
Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16
Philippians 2:1-13
Matthew 21:23-32

The religious authorities ask Jesus by what authority he does “these things.” In our lectionary, we have skipped over “these things” in question; Jesus had ‘cleansed’ the Temple – overturned the tables of the money changers and chased out those selling the animals of sacrifice, and healed the blind and the lame. At the time of the feast (Passover) with so many many pilgrims in the city, “these things” would have created quite a stir.

To my mind, the Temple Act is one of the things we can be most sure of concerning the historical Jesus. It would be the kind of thing that would have gotten someone crucified during the Passover feast. The Roman authorities would not have taken kindly to the sort of political statement it made and the disruption it caused during an already tense time of the year in Jerusalem. The Temple authorities, beholden as they were to Rome, would not have let something like that pass. To my mind, it fits with the kind of disappointment someone from Galilee might experience on entering the Temple for the first time. It looked more like a tourist attraction than the tabernacle of the Lord.

So, the authorities ask Jesus by what authority he does these things (this seems to me a lot less likely to have actually happened — no one would have bothered to ask such questions of someone who had done these things — punishment would have been swift). And in good Cynic fashion, he turns the question back on his questioners. The question is a trap; if he answers that he does it on God’s authority, he is a blasphemer: if it is on human authority, or his own authority, he is guilty of treason. There is no good answer.

Instead, he asks the authorities whether John’s baptism was of God or of human origin. They are now trapped, and Matthew explains their trap. John’s baptism was likewise a theological and political agitation. By taking people out into the wilderness and baptizing them back across the Jordan, John is making the statement that the occupiers of the holy land (including the very Temple authorities questioning Jesus) are illegitimate. It doesn’t much matter whether this statement comes from God or from the crowds.

The tax collectors and the prostitutes (the very sorts of people who went out to see John) recognize that the kingdom is not being put together at the Temple. Those on the margins, who have had to pimp themselves either to the Roman Empire or to men to make ends meet, recognize that the kingdom is going to be put together at the margins. Covenant loyalty is going to be lived by those hungry and thirsty for justice, not those willing to make a devil’s bargain with Rome.

Protests in our own day make us uncomfortable. People kneeling during the national anthem seems to us a bit like overturning the tables of the money changers in the Temple. People marching on the streets and blocking intersections disrupt our daily activities. Jesus disrupted the daily business of the Temple, and those in charge want to know on whose authority he did these things. It is precisely on the authority of the tax collectors and prostitutes, those pushed to the margins of justice by the devil’s bargain those in charge have made with Rome. Not either of the answers they thought they had him trapped into. He forces them to hold up the mirror to their own authority and call it into question.

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