By whose authority?

Matthew 21. 23-32

I imagine that most of you here this morning are pretty good cooks. Perhaps you are stars in the kitchen. You can put together a tasty roast, bake a Victoria Sponge or produce some Spaghetti Bolognese without much worry. More unusual dishes like, say, a fragrant lamb Korma or a hot chocolate soufflé might require more thought and the use of a recipe book. For those of us not so proficient a recipe book is always necessary and even then we might forget the eggs or the butter.

It’s fascinating to consider how, as cooks, we got to where we are now. Perhaps it was your mother who introduced you to cooking and showed you how to do some basic things and her methods and advice serve you as reference points. Other people, friends and family, may have taught you, and then there are the recipe books. Books by Delia Smith, Mary Berry, Nigel Slater and even the lubricious Nigella Lawson. They guide us through some complicated processes and we put our confidence in them. Our experience builds all the time.

As with our cooking so also it is with our attempts to lead a fulfilling life. As we have learnt what to do in the kitchen from people who have been important to us and from authoritative writers, so we have learnt how to handle the bigger issues of our lives and our relationships from others. Our parents or guardians taught us what was right and what was wrong. They gave us for the most part guidelines for behaviour. Then we had our teachers some of whom inspired us. And lastly add in our faith in God through his Son and through the Scriptures. All of these provide us with a backdrop in front of which we live our lives; a set of reference points for when life is difficult and challenging.

After the riots and looting in some of our big cities in August, politicians, social workers and educationists were queuing up to talk about dysfunctional families and paternity issues and point to a lack of discipline in our society and in our schools. Perhaps we each listened and nodded in agreement. We were agreed that everyone requires some kind of authority in their lives.

In today’s Gospel reading from St Matthew Jesus was challenged about authority. The day before he had walked into the outer court of the Temple in Jerusalem to find market stalls selling pigeons and lambs for sacrifice and others exchanging Roman coinage into Temple money. He had become angry and turned over the tables and thrown the traders out of the Temple. “My house shall be called a house of prayer, but you are making it a robbers’ cave.”

The next day the Temple priests and elders come to Jesus and asked him: ‘By what authority are you acting like this? Who gave you this authority?’

It was a deliberate, trick question. If Jesus had answered ‘from God’ he would have been immediately accused of blasphemy – of using God’s name in vain. So Jesus’ response was to ask a question back – a technique used by teachers and philosophers down the ages. His question was: where did John the Baptist derive his authority. It was a question that the priests and elders were also unable to answer without losing face with the people. They couldn’t say ‘from man’ because the people held John to be a prophet of God.

So both questions were left hanging in the air, but we know that the correct answer is the same for both. ‘From God’ – Jesus’ authority came from God as did John’s.

Say we asked ourselves the same question; by what authority are you acting like this? In other words, by what authority do we live our lives? What would be our answer?

Well, our answer would be complicated because it would involve our parents, teachers and others and our understanding of God and the Scriptures – all influences on us.

Our answer would also be very personal and unique to us. Each of us is different.

But then our answer might go further still.

A good cook is not dependent on his or her authorities. A good cook does not blame the recipe book or her mother for a failed dish. Good cooks surely blame themselves when things go wrong because, despite all the influences, all the advice and teaching and experience that lies in the background they have messed up. Good cooks are personally responsible for what they produce and can then take pride in their dishes when they are delicious.

In our moral and spiritual lives we each have a multitude of sources which give us backbone and inspire us and in that sense are all under authority, but ultimately and guided by the Spirit of God we are responsible for our own lives – ultimately we each must take responsibility for everything we do and everything we are – nothing less, nothing more.