For me, the problem with only preaching once in a a eight week span is that I’ve somehow missed the giant leaps the lectionary has done within the Gospel of Matthew. Even if reality doesn’t bear this out, it feels like we all of a sudden find ourselves in Holy Week. In actuality, we have jumped only a few chapters at a time over the course of the past few months, but this week, we find ourselves deep in the conflicts of Holy Week.
Chapter 21 begins with Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem. Known these days as Palm Sunday, this marks the beginning of Jesus’ final week. Riding on a donkey, Jesus entered Jerusalem from the east on the same day that Pilate, the Roman Governor of Israel, would have arrived from the west on his war horse. On the east side of town, the crowd cheered “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” On the west side of town, a much larger crowd proclaimed Caesar as the son of god. Upon his arrival, Jesus made his way to the Temple where with a whip of cords and disgust in his eyes, he flipped the tables of the money changers and equated the whole enterprise with Isaiah’s “den of robbers.”
The next day, which would have been a Monday, Jesus again entered Jerusalem through the east gate and returned to the scene of yesterday’s unpleasantness. It is here that our Gospel lesson begins with the chief priests and elders asking a perfectly legitimate question, “By what authority are you doing all this?” In common parlance, we might imagine them saying, “Who do you think you are?” I’ve written on the topic of authority in Matthew before. Then, it dealt with Jesus’ claim to have been given “all authority” following his resurrection. I think the topic deserves attention here, before the crucifixion, as well.
My current working definition of authority comes from the Rev. Dr. Craig Koester, Vice President of Academic Affairs at Luther Seminary. In a commentary on Matthew 28, Koester defines authority as “followability,” which I find helpful in this context as well. After all that had happened on Sunday, Jesus returns to Jerusalem and finds himself, once again and still, surrounded by a crowd of followers. The leaders are indignant. How could this rabble-rouser still have followability? Who gave him such authority? One suspects that they already know the answer, though deep down, they pray it isn’t true that God’s judgment had really come upon the Temple system.
We who follow Jesus recognize his authority simply by following. By subscribing to his teaching of the Kingdom of Heaven and how it has been inaugurated, implicitly we agree to the reality Jesus names after his resurrection. Namely, his authority, the reason we follow him, comes from the God who created everything that is. In so doing, we place ourselves under that authority while also having some of it ceded to us. Since we are not in the midst of Holy Week, and will not be under the scrutiny of those of would do us harm, by virtue of our baptisms, we are all able to answer the question, “by what authority” with confidence – “we follow Jesus.”