By What Authority?

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

By Jo Bailey Wells

“By what authority are you doing all this?” Jesus is asked.

We’re now at the end of chapter 21. Since last week Jesus has crossed a threshold in the gospel. He’s entered the gate of Jerusalem. We call it the Triumphal Entry. He rides into Jerusalem on a donkey and the people go wild. They’re waving palm branches and shouting out “Hosanna!” It’s the peak of Jesus’ popularity.

And then he goes to the Temple and sees tables where Temple leaders are selling animals to pilgrims who’ve come to town for the festival. They’re extorting the poor and profiting from their devotion.

Jesus gets mad — turning over their tables because they’ve turned his father’s house into a den of thieves and robbers.

And then Jesus shows what God’s people are supposed to be about. He reminds the leaders of Israel that this is supposed to be a house of prayer and shows them what it looks like to be God’s people — by reaching out and touching the untouchable. He reminds them God is less interested in religious ceremony than in reaching out to people in need.

And that’s where the leaders confront him with their question: “By what authority are you doing this?” In other words, “Who do you think you are?”

I have to admit, if Jesus came in and did that in Guildford diocese, I’d probably react the same way. Who is this upstart?

Or imagine you’re CEO of a big company. You’ve earned the right to be in this position. You’ve got an MBA, you worked your way up. Then one day some low-ranked office clerk starts spouting off around the office about how she thinks the corporation should be run — and people listen. Before long you’re made to look like some kind of dinosaur.

What do you do?

That’s the story of IBM in the early ’90s. The young employee had been tuned into a newfangled idea called the internet and started telling people that if IBM doesn’t get its act together that you’ll be left in the dust. That’s where the execs at IBM found themselves. They were faced with a choice. Do they protect their authority and power, or do they listen to this low-ranking nobody and change their perspective?

They listened, and changed, and IBM transitioned into the new world of cyberspace.

When we think about the church and about trying to be the community of God, how often do we run into this issue of authority and power struggle?

Have you heard the seven last words of the church? “We’ve never done it that way before.” We think, “This is my church, this is how I like it. Don’t change anything here.”

We don’t like change, we don’t like people challenging our ideas or ways of doing things. And of course we’ll tell you they’re not just our ways; consider the weight of history and tradition.

How do we stop ourselves falling into the same trap that the Israelites did? So caught up with their own place of authority and their own perception of what they thought God was like, they were no longer able to see what God was actually doing right in front of them.

If we’re going to be the community of God, we must be willing to look for the ways God is at work in the world around us. It’s likely to be uncomfortable: just as with the radical Jesus causing a ruckus in the streets of Jerusalem. Whatever God is doing, it pushes the boundaries.

And as soon as something gets uncomfortable, we jump to query the authority behind it.

But here’s the thing about authority. We have to remember, it’s not our church, it’s not our agenda, it’s not our will. It’s God’s authority, it’s God’s will, on earth as in heaven.

And if we’re going to live together as God’s community, then we need to learn how to let go of our sense of entitlement and reach out to people and ideas that might be a little outside the box.

Now, the leaders of Israel weren’t too excited about this. So, Jesus next tells them a parable about two sons.

A father tells his son to go work in the field and the son says, “No!” In that culture that was a big no-no. Children didn’t defy their fathers like that. So, the son was wrong.

But then it says “he changed his mind and went.” Actually the Greek word is much more than changing your mind. It’s deeper, more like a change of heart. He realized that he was wrong. The direction of his heart moved from doing what he wanted to do to doing what his father wanted.

On the other hand, there’s a second son. The father tells him to go work in the field and this son says, “Yes, sir, right sir.” But then he doesn’t do it. He pays lip service.

And Jesus asks the leaders of Israel, “Which one did the will of the father?”

I find this deeply challenging. I don’t know about you, but superficial lip service comes a whole lot more easily to me than deep down obedience. And when as Christians we’re like the second son — saying one thing but doing another, and acting out of our own interests — we give the church a bad name.

It makes me realize that some of the most Christlike people I’ve ever known are agnostics or atheists. They’ve said “No” to God and to the church, and yet I see them caring for the poor, listening deeply to others, welcoming the stranger, and genuinely loving their neighbours. Meanwhile, in the church among those who profess Jesus as Lord and claim to know the grace of God in their lives, we may find behaviors that are anything but Christlike.

Here’s the thing about these two sons. They were both wrong. But what separates them is that the first one was willing to admit it and do something about it. He says those three most difficult of words, “I was wrong.”

And so Jesus challenges assumptions about authority with an example of humility. Authority comes from humility, from submission to the will of the one we serve.

Which is where Philippians 2 comes in, where Paul urges that our attitude is like that of Jesus … “who being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God as something to be grasped. But emptied himself, taking on the very nature of a servant, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross.”

Even though Jesus had all the authority of God, he did not exploit it, he didn’t maximize its uses for pointless gains. Instead he emptied himself of divinity and took on our humanity. Not out of convenience but out of obedience.

And then comes the turning point: after the emptying comes the filling, after submitting to authority comes the bearing of authority, ultimate authority, after going down so there follows a rising up. “Therefore God has highly exalted him … and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

If we are going to live together as the community of God, if we are going to bear the character of Christ, we need to not just pay lip service to God, go through the churchy motions, and then go on with our self-centered lives.

We need to be willing to roll up our sleeves and get over ourselves. We need to get out into the fields where God is already at work. We need to stop grasping for authority and instead practice submission. We need to empty ourselves of our own “stuff” and pour ourselves out for others.

I wonder if you caught the BBC news report of a Spanish triathlete who was approaching the final line in silver medal position when the British runner leading the way in front of him misread a sign at the bend and went the wrong way. In a split second, instead of lunging for the finish in a last-moment surprise win, the Spanish guy slowed down, waited for the Brit to catch up and let him overtake — emptying himself in the conviction that the other deserved to win. He said it came automatically to do that, like he’d been taught from childhood.

Or another report — in The Guardian and The Sunday Times — of a multi-billionaire, Chuck Feeney — who instead of owning property and cars and living like he deserved the wealth he’d earned, has given it all away, all $8 million of it, as secretly and anonymously as possible. Again, consciously emptying himself for the sake of others — clear that others needed and deserved it much more than he did.

Both responses speak of the attitude of Jesus that we’re urged to imitate: setting aside authority, letting go of opportunity, resisting entitlement, giving away wealth for the sake of others. Admitting if we’ve got it wrong and generally getting ourselves out of the way — the self-emptying — in order to maximize the space and scope for God’s work in us and through us. The full-filling.

I don’t know about you, but I long for a humbler church. How might that look? It will be reflected in our bias to the poor, in an honesty over our mistakes, in a generosity with our resources, in a letting go of entitlement.

And then we shall have an authority that needs no protecting or defending. “By whose authority do you do these things?” others may ask. And we will answer, simply and boldly, “In the name of Jesus, before whom every knee will bow and every tongue confess, to the glory of God the Father.”

The Rt. Rev. Dr. Jo Bailey Wells is the Anglican Communion’s Bishop for Episcopal Ministry.


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