Authority in Christ
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; September 27, 2020
17th Sunday after Pentecost
As many of you know, I have had a spiritual director for most of my ministry. Because of my appreciation for the practice, a few years ago I earned a certificate in Spiritual Direction from Shalem Institute in Washington, D.C. And just recently, I started facilitating a Spiritual Direction Clergy Support Group for our Presbytery. Since meeting with a spiritual director is not a common practice, you might be wondering what it’s all about. Well, a spiritual director is a friend with whom you sit in prayer and in quiet conversation, together trying to discern the direction the Holy Spirit might be leading. It’s less like a counseling session and more like a “spiritual listening” session.
As a minister, I can honestly say that meeting with a spiritual director has been invaluable. Doing so, helped me find my way into the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). It helped me hear God’s call to Colonial Heights Presbyterian Church and then, over 4 years ago, FPC of Valdosta. The practice of spiritual direction has helped me to become more courageous as a leader on behalf of God’s kingdom work. It has helped me claim the authority I have been given (through my baptism and ordination)—authority to live fully as a seeker of God’s face—authority to encourage others to do the same.
Authority. It is the issue at hand for Jesus in our gospel reading. The chief priests and elders have been watching him. By this time, in Matthew’s telling, Jesus has entered the temple, overturned the tables of the money changers, and in righteous indignation proclaimed, “My house shall be called a house of prayer; but you are making it a den of robbers.” While we might imagine Jesus as meek and mild, here we witness him at the onset of his ministry, as a truth-teller who stirs up trouble with the powers that be. And the powers that be do not relinquish their control without a fight—never have—never will. But that does not stop Jesus.
In today’s reading we find Jesus again in the temple. And the chief priests and elders approach him with a question: “By what authority are you doing these things?” Make no mistake, they are not acting out of curiosity. They are acting out of a desire to bring Jesus down to size. In today’s vernacular think: “Who said you could do that? Who do you think you are? You’re too big for your britches. You need taking down a peg or two…” When it comes to questioning someone’s authority, it is rarely an act of observation or casual interest. Rather, as in our story today, there is an ulterior motive at work. In the case of the chief priests and elders, they have come to trap Jesus. But what do they hope to accomplish by questioning his authority? Their motivation isn’t clear, but there’s one thing that is—things don’t turn out like they plan.
In the commentary, Feasting on the Word, Charles Campbell, Professor of Homiletics at Duke University, tells the following story:
A few years ago, while channel surfing, I paused and watched part of an interview with television psychologist and celebrity Dr. Phil. At one point the interviewer asked Dr. Phil, “If you could interview anyone in the world, past or present, who would it be?” Dr. Phil replied, without hesitation, “Jesus Christ. I would really like to interview Jesus Christ. I would like to have a conversation with him about the meaning of life.” As soon as Dr. Phil spoke, I remember thinking, “Oh no, you wouldn’t! You would not want to sit down with Jesus, treat him like an interviewee, and ask him about the meaning of life. You would be crazy to do that. He would turn you upside down and inside out. He would confound all your questions and probably end up telling you to sell everything you own, give the money to the poor, and come, follow me. No, Dr. Phil, you do not really want to interview Jesus, and I do not want to either. It would not go well.
As the chief priests and elders discover, conversations with Jesus can be dangerous. Especially when, like a good rabbi, he answers a question with a question:
“What do you think?” he begins and then tells a story about a man with two sons. In the parable, the father asks each son in turn to go out to the vineyard to work. The first says he will not but then he has a change of heart and goes to do his father’s bidding. The second says he will, appearing to be the obedient son, but then he does not follow through with his promise. “Which of the two did the will of his father?” And the chief priests and elders say, “The first.” Herein, Jesus seems to be getting at something worth remembering: What matters is not talking the talk—it’s walking the walk. Then comes the punch line…wait for it…wait for it…“Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.” Did you get that? Jesus has just told the “authorities that be,” the very “keepers of the law,” that they will enter God’s kingdom behind sinners whom they hold in contempt.
The Letter to the Hebrews is one of my favorite books of the New Testament. Of unknown authorship, originally, it was written to newly converted Jewish Christians to stress the superiority of Jesus to anything in heaven or on earth. Jesus is superior to the angels and heavenly beings. Jesus is superior to the prophets of old, even Moses. Jesus is superior to the priests. In other words, Jesus is THE AUTHORITY! In all that he says, in all that he does, Jesus is concerned with being the power—the power of God—the power of love! And Jesus uses his authority to model his own command: “Love the Lord your God with all your strength and all your heart and all your mind and love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus uses his authority to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly before God.
One biblical scholar makes an interesting observation[i]: Jesus has authority because it is given to him by his Abba Father. In point of fact, authority is always given. This is the primary difference between power, which is the sheer ability to do something or bring something about—and authority, which is one’s ability to do or say something because they have been given that ability. In other words, a person has the authority to do things because he has been authorized to do them by the author, or the one with the actual power.
Authority may always be given—but it is given in two ways. Authority is given by those “above” with the power. It is just as often given by those “below” who decide to accept it. And here is the thing: in about 99% of the cases of our lives, those with authority over us have it only because we give it to them. The colleague who slighted us, the child who disappointed us, even the spouse or parent who abandoned us—yes, in each case the person in question may have actually done something harmful, even devastating; nevertheless, the way we regard that action and person over time is something we get to determine. If we are still angry, hurt, disappointed, or upset, it is because we have decided to give authority to that person or event to continue to influence and even dominate our lives. We may have been victimized, but we choose whether or not we will live as a victim.
When it comes to the religious rulers who question Jesus, it is easy to jump on the bandwagon to ridicule them. But it might be wise to take a moment to consider how we use or misuse our own authority. We are, after all, baptized believers, and through the work of Jesus Christ, we have been given authority. So how are we using it? Are we following in the path of Jesus? Do we use our authority in God’s kingdom work—in whatever measure we have been given—to look to the interests of others, rather than our own? Do we have the same mind that is in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited?
Love, selflessness, humility, regard for the other, vulnerability—these are not at all the characteristics associated with authority. But such is the way of Jesus who uses his last ounce of human authority to gaze upon those who’ve put him on the cross and say with all the strength he can muster: “Forgive them Father. They know not what they do.” This is love in action. This is power with a purpose.
As we walk in the path set before us by Jesus the author and perfector of our faith, day by day may we, too, grow into the authority given to us at our baptism—to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
[i] Adapted from blogpost by David Lose at http://www.davidlose.net/2014/09/pentecost-16a-open-future/
*Cover Art Christ the Savior (Pantokrator) via Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain