Psalm 25:1-8, Ezekiel 18: 1-4:, 25-end, Philippians 2: 1-13, Matthew 21: 23-32
The first half of today’s gospel reading from Matthew (Matthew 21.23-32) comes in all three synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke and is placed after, or shortly after, Jesus has made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem in the final week of his life and then entered the Temple. In the Cleansing of the Temple Jesus in anger drove out all those who were selling and buying in the temple and overturned the tables of the money-changers who were selling animals and birds for sacrifice. Jesus boldly proclaimed that God’s house must be a house of prayer, not a den of robbers. He went on to heal people who came to him in the Temple. That is the general context as to why the religious leaders of the day came to question Jesus’ authority: they were angry that Jesus had disrupted the religious sacrificial observances of the Temple, and had been exerting his own authority there both to heal and to teach about God.
So the religious leaders ask Jesus,
“By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”
Jesus knows they are trying to catch him out, and his response is very clever. He in turn asks them a question. He points them to his prophetic predecessor John the Baptist and asks them about the source of John’s baptism, whether it came from heaven or human origin. In other words, where did John the Baptist’s authority come from? Jesus knows that the religious authorities will not be able to answer him. For they were sceptical about John and did not follow him. Yet they knew the people regarded John as a prophet sent from God. So in order to keep the peace the religious leaders of the day fail to give Jesus an adequate answer. Jesus in turn refuses to answer them.
This passage comes at a stage in the gospel narrative when there is mounting tension and opposition towards Jesus from the religious leaders. Each time Jesus is challenged he responds with words of wisdom that cannot be gainsaid. The verbal conflict between the religious leaders of the day and Jesus are all around the thorny issue of authority. From where does Jesus’ authority come? The religious leaders try to undermine Jesus’ authority, but they don’t succeed. The life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus eventually establish Jesus’ divine authority in a way that mere words and argument cannot possibly do.
The notion of authority is something that has changed quite considerably in recent years in our society. Dictionary definitions describe authority as:
“the power or right to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience” or
“a person or organisation having political or administrative power and control”.
How do we understand authority today? In years gone by there tended to be a good deal of deference given to those in positions of authority. Such deference has declined in latter years. When we enter this world we normally relate primarily to our parents. As the child grows it becomes clear that the parents are there not only to offer affection and nurture, but also to direct what can and cannot be done. As the child develops into an adolescent there is often rebellion, and this can be a healthy way of the emerging adult establishing his or her own authority, his or her own way of doing things. I remember vividly being told by someone just six weeks after my mother died, that when one’s second parent dies, it is as if there is no more ceiling. I found it a vivid image to describe how one is no more looking to the two main authority figures of one’s earthly life – no more making reference to them, whether seeking advice or direction, or simply making a rebellious stand. Suddenly, one becomes one’s own authority figure, in a way that may not have been so obvious when one’s own parents were still alive.
Jesus clearly in his earthly life had a God-given way of establishing his own authority in the minds and hearts of those who encountered him. He had a natural authority about him that was Spirit-led. It was largely his inner quality of authority that attracted others to him. In our first reading today from Paul’s letter to the Philippians (Philippians 2.1-13) we are shown that Jesus’ authority was rooted especially in humility and obedience. In some wonderfully poetic and hymn-like verses Paul demonstrates how Jesus, although equal with God, nevertheless emptied himself of his divine status and was humbly born as a human being and was obedient even unto death on a cross. In the way he died Jesus became the lowest of the low. And yet it was through that very humility and abasement that God then exalted Jesus to his rightful place in heaven, where he is acknowledged and worshipped as Lord of all.
It is all too often recognisable to us when power and authority are exercised abusively, whether by an individual or an institution. And that is the exact opposite of what the gospel – the good news of Jesus Christ risen from the dead - is all about. The gospel is about God in Christ empowering people, not disempowering them – empowering them to be the kind of people they are truly called to be by God. Agnes Sanford was a Christian living in the twentieth century who was deeply involved in the ministry of healing. She wrote that every individual has what she termed “sealed orders”. These sealed orders were the hidden, mysterious purpose of a person’s life, that summed up his or her identity before God and contained the true direction of a person’s life. Agnes Sanford argued that it was the calling of everyone to discover his or her sealed orders and so fulfil their potential and true purpose in life. St Paul’s “sealed orders”, to use Agnes Sanford’s phrase, were clearly to be a great preacher of the gospel and a missionary, bringing the gospel message to the Gentiles of many lands. We might do well from time to time to reflect on our own view of what our particular purpose for being on this earth is, and pray that God will enable each one of us to fulfil that purpose as best we can.
As Christians we believe that there is meaning and purpose in life, and that nowhere has that been shown more clearly than in the life, ministry, passion, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ, and the subsequent outpouring of the Spirit. We live in very challenging times, and with the present rise in the infection rate of Covid 19 many people are naturally feeling anxious and unsettled and fearful for the future. Jesus had a God-given authority in all that he said and did. We too, even in these very challenging and testing times, are entrusted with spiritual authority to witness to the love of God as revealed in Jesus. It is an awesome task. Let us pray to God for the grace to live lives worthy of such a calling, and that through our witness others may be drawn closer to the God of love in whom we believe.
Next month the Church celebrates the feast of St Teresa of Avila, the sixteenth century Spanish nun and mystic and Doctor of the Church and spiritual writer who was a feisty and authoritative woman, beautifully balancing a life of both action and contemplation. She established many convents. I would like to close with the well-known words of her prayer known as her Bookmark:
Let nothing disturb you.
Let nothing frighten you.
All things are passing;
God never changes.
Patience gains all things.
Who has God wants nothing.
God alone suffices.
Rev Sister Margaret Anne ASSP