The Question of Authority – a homily

My Tuesday in Holy Week homily is now available on the Saint Paul’s website, or you can read on.

The question of authority has always been an important one
in the realm of religion. When one, charismatic person claims
authority that hasn’t been rightfully given, we end up with cults
like Jim Jones’ People’s Temple and David Koresh’s Branch
Dividians. Because religion deals with emotions and
convictions, lifestyles and salvation, it is important to check
credentials and make sure that rising stars aren’t just in it for
themselves. This is fairly easy to do in the 21st century
denominational structure because we have discernment
processes, psychiatric evaluations, seminary assessments, and
ordination examinations. Of course, the time in which Jesus
lived was much, much different: first century Palestine was
teeming with “teachers” and “gurus,” “miracle men,” and
“zealots.” It was hard to know the true credentials of any of
these guys who were running around gaining disciples. It is no wonder then that the Chief Priests, Scribes, and
Elders are questioning just where Jesus’ authority might have
come from, especially after the recent unpleasantness of
yesterday where he flipped out and flipped tables in the Temple
courtyard. They take Jesus to task, “Who do you think you are,
riding into town like some sort of king, coming to our Temple
and disrupting five centuries worth of religious practice? You
cost us thousands of shekels yesterday! By whose authority are
you doing all of these crazy things?” They ask questions, but of
course, they already know the answers.
Three years earlier, in a little hamlet called Bethany Across
the Jordan, a man named John was preaching about the coming
of the Messiah. He called on people to repent and seek God’s
forgiveness before the Christ came to bring about new life in the
Kingdom. John the Baptist created such a stir that people came
from all over to hear him teach and to be washed clean in the Jordan River. Mark tells us that “people from the whole Judean
countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to
him.” Certainly, “all the people of Jerusalem” included the
religious leaders who would have needed to see for themselves
what was going on out in the sticks – hoping to figure out where
this John the Baptist got his authority. Surely then, they had also
heard the amazing story of Jesus’ own baptism what with the
heavens being torn apart, the Spirit descending, and a voice from
the sky proclaiming, “You are my Son, the Beloved…” You
don’t keep a scene like that a secret for very long.
Jesus’ authority didn’t come from the usual sources. He
hadn’t studied under a famous Rabbi. He didn’t go to the best
Hebrew School. His background wasn’t in Greek philosophy or
Hebrew theology. Jesus’ authority came directly from his
Father, THE Father. The religious leaders knew this, and it
terrified them, but they also knew that the source of Jesus’ authority was also their best chance to trap him in the crime of
blasphemy, a crime punishable by death. It is one thing for the
crowds to say that Jesus was the Son of God, but it was quite
another for Jesus to claim it for himself. If he would even
suggest it, in the middle of Temple, teeming with pilgrims in
town for the Passover, while standing right in front of the
religious powers-that-be, then they could easily arrest him
without fear of the crowd.
When you are the Messiah and your authority comes
directly from God, and let’s be clear, only the Son of God gets to
claim that kind of authority, you don’t have to play those sorts of
games. Jesus refuses to give them what they are looking for.
Instead, he shows them the foolishness of their system by
catching them in their own fear of losing their power and
control. The authority of the Chief Priests, Scribes, and Elders
comes from the very crowd that they fear: the same crowd that they, in turn, try to control through fear and taxes. It is this very
broken system that Jesus confronted violently yesterday and
continues to antagonize today.
The question of authority is an important one in religion.
As the week wears on, the type of authority that Jesus can claim,
authority that comes directly from the Father, will prove too
threatening for the powers-that-be. Eventually, their fear of
Jesus will outweigh even their fear of the crowd and it will lead
to the cross, but not yet. Tonight, the Chief Priests, Scribes and
Elders walk away with their tails between their legs, no doubt
certain that Jesus has true authority, unlike anything they’ve ever
seen before, unlike anything they hope to ever see again.

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