"By what authority"

Sermon at St James’, Colwall, Sunday 1 October 2017

Matthew 21: 23-32; Philippians 2:1-13

To listen to the recording (of most of the sermon) as you read:

I’m in a supermarket queue at the Check-out and a woman ahead of me is filling her bags with her shopping while her young son attempts to add some sweets to the basket.  She spots him and tells him to put them back.  “You’re not having any more sweets”.  Then he tries again – “Put them back, sweets ruin your teeth”.  And so it goes on with the boy becoming sour and disgruntled, “why not…why?” until I hear those familiar words of a harassed parent, “Because I say so!”

We’ve all surely been there as the annoying child or the frustrated parent and we all know what she means.  If you dissect it a little she is saying, “Look, I am your mother and I have taken on the responsibility of looking after you and bringing you up until you are able to look after yourself.  So for a few years I have authority over you.  I have responsibility for you and authority over you and because I love you I will exercise that responsibility and authority in the best way I can for you.  That’s why I said, 'Because I say so'.”

Authority.  That’s the word that stands out from today’s Gospel reading from Matthew.  Authority – I feel slightly hesitant speaking about authority when I’m perched in a little box three feet or so above contradiction!  The thing is that Jesus was challenged about his authority in Matthew’s Gospel.  He has entered Jerusalem and been greeted quite rapturously as the son of David, as a prophet, perhaps as the Messiah and he has visited the Great Temple where he finds the outer court being used like a local market where money changers and traders were hawking their wares.  His reaction was immediate anger.  He turned over the stalls and drove out all who were buying and selling in the Temple.  So much for the idea of gentle Jesus meek and mild.

The trouble was that these traders were working with the permission of the Jewish authorities – changing Roman money into temple money so that it could then be used to buy birds and animals for sacrifice.  You might defile your sacrifice if you bought it with Roman coinage.

It is no wonder then that representatives of the Sanhedrin turn up to question Jesus.  The Sanhedrin was the Jewish Council who had been given the role of running the Temple and religious affairs by their Roman overlords.  Possibly Caiaphas, the high priest is there and certainly with some of the senior scribes who copied the Law and were experts on the Law.

The question they ask is a fair one: “By what authority are you doing these things and who gave you this authority?”

By what authority?

Well, our Lord, like teachers everywhere decides to ask them a question in return.  Giving straight answers is too easy and doesn’t make people think for themselves.  He asks them a question and if they answer his he will answer theirs.  Was the Baptism of John from heaven or human origin, from God or from man.  It’s a question which they cannot answer because they want to say from man but the people thought John was from God.  So … stalemate!

And now you and I have to decide what we think Jesus meant.  Was he claiming a special authority from God or did he mean that John and he had the same authority?  We must remind ourselves that according to the first three Gospel writers Jesus was reluctant to call himself the Son of God or indeed the Messiah.  He preferred to use the title Son of Man. Then in today’s epistle from his letter to the Philippians St Paul writes this:  “Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited but emptied himself…..being born in human form.”  He emptied himself being born in human form.  In other words no special status.

What Jesus was surely doing was acting like any man or woman of faith and, indeed, like John the Baptist, sensing his responsibility to God and his love for the people who were probably being defrauded.  It was clearly a very provocative attack on the Sanhedrin’s power and probably precipitated his death, but he felt compelled to act as he did.

Let us now look at ourselves.  How would each of us reply to that question “By what authority?’  By what authority do you do the things you do, say the things you say and make judgments and decisions the way you do?

If we answer that we live our lives according to our faith in God we should be aware that this is fraught with danger.  Some of the worst atrocities in human history have been committed in the name of God – murders, massacres, wars, inquisitions, torture, an enormous list of God’s name being used to justify the most evil of outrages.

Our faith in God should certainly inform our actions and it might give us some kind of authority, but on its own it is not enough.  Any kind of authority we assume has to be tempered.  Like the mother at the supermarket check-out our personal authority has to be grounded in a sense of responsibility and love for others.  In that way we can come near to being like the Lord whom we worship.