A lifetime ago, back in March of 2003, SHW and I had just returned from our honeymoon and I was beginning a new job. After graduating from college in May of 2002, she beat me to finding a job, so we moved to her Presbyterian bubble of a hometown in NWPA. She moved back in with her parents, and I rented a house from them. Jobs for fresh-faced business grads who were planning to leave for seminary in a couple of years weren’t easy to come by, so I began my post-college work as a server in a Red Lobster 30 minutes away. As the wedding date drew near, I guess my father-in-law realized I wasn’t’ going away, so he offered me a job with his construction company and the fat-cat title of Business Manager. I started right after the wedding, and spent most of the next nine months doing very little, if any, managing. I had some responsibilities based on my title and job description, but the guys in the field didn’t care much about that. They didn’t know me. They didn’t have any reason to trust me. I had absolutely no authority because they hadn’t given it to me, yet.
I still remember the first time one of them trusted me with a task. A job required us to have an excavator close enough to a road that we needed some Jersey barriers for protection. It was my job to find some. I took that responsibility way too seriously, but it paid off. Now when they called in from the field and I answered the phone, they didn’t ask for someone else, they told me what was up and let me help figure out what to do next. Authority came as a result of relationship building and trust. That’s where authority comes from.
The Chief Priests and Elders don’t trust Jesus. They know they haven’t given him any authority to do the things he’s been doing. They don’t see him as a possible Messiah. They aren’t ready to claim him as the Son of David. They sure as heck don’t think he should be messing with their well planned religious system. And so they confront him. “By whose authority are you doing these things?” His Father had named him “my beloved Son” and had instructed Peter, James, and John to “listen to him” on the Mount of the Transfiguration, but just because somebody gives you a title, doesn’t mean you have any authority.
Jesus knows that. He’s not stupid enough to say, “The LORD, my Father in heaven, has given me the authority.” Instead, he turns the question around. “Where did John’s authority come from?” The chief priests and elders know the answer: John’s authority was ordained by God and confirmed by the people; but they sure aren’t going to say that out loud because they know what it implies. Jesus’ authority was given by God, but it works because of his deeply incarnational relationships with people. He gained authority by listening to their hurts, by teaching in a way that they could understand, by touching them even when they were considered unclean, and by healing them and making them whole. True authority is not given, it is earned, and Jesus had earned his authority whether the powers-that-be wanted to admit it or not.