Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32 Psalm 25:1-9 Philippians 2:1-13 Matthew 21:23-32
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“The chief priests and the elders asked Jesus “by what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” (Mt 21:23) Our band members here today and the army tradition they serve know something about authority. If you serve in the armed forces the authority lines are crystal clear – an order is given and you follow, no questions. Even in the more relaxed environment of a band – you are not about to head into battle – but you still need to follow the authority of the band leader and conductor. If we are to hear the lovely music we are having today, everyone needs to be on the same page, in time, and accept the leadership and authority of the conductor.
In our gospel reading today, Jesus has entered the place of ultimate authority for his time – the Temple. The Temple in Jerusalem was the absolute centre of Judaism containing the Holy of Holies where God himself was said to reside at its heart. Solomon’s temple had been destroyed in 586BC by the Babylonian king. In about 516 BC the second temple was built lasting 500 years. Herod dismantled it to build his much greater temple from 20BC. The Temple was a religious building, the heart of worship and sacrifices, and also a very political building. Religion and politics were not at all separate in Jesus’ day, that is a modern invention. The size and grandeur of the Temple was in competition with the temples of Rome and other gods of the region. The Temple was huge, beautiful and elaborate. Its purpose was to inspire awe and submission to God, and submission to the priests who served God. And this submission was political as it claimed the lives of the people of Israel in a way that the temples and armies of Rome never would. Until that is, the Romans took it apart stone by stone in 70AD.
Today’s episode of the gospels takes place after Jesus has entered Jerusalem on what we call Palm Sunday – he on a donkey, a humble animal, coming from one side of the city; while at the same time, from the other side of the city entered Pontius Pilate, the puppet governor, on a white stallion surrounded by soldiers and symbols of Roman power. Jesus is surrounded by people waving palm branches, not really a match for the Roman soldiers.
Jesus goes to the Temple though and turns over the tables of the moneylenders and drives them out “my house shall be a house of prayer”. Then the next day he comes back and is confronted by the chief priests and the elders “by what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” In other words – what on earth are you doing in our Temple – and who are you to act this way?
Debate amongst religious leaders was a common thing and the rabbis especially debated through questions – so Jesus fires a question back – Was the baptism of John the Baptist from heaven or of human origin? Was John the Baptist doing God’s work or was he just another crazy prophet? The leaders are afraid to answer – if they say Johns’ baptism was just his own work, the crowd might turn on them because the crowd consider John a prophet and a martyr after he was beheaded by Herod; but if they say John’s baptism has its authority from heaven or God, then Jesus will ask – well why didn’t you follow John and by implication why don’t you follow me. Caught between a rock and a hard place the priests give no answer. So Jesus refuses to answer as well. Clever. Jesus is also not about to incite the priests and the crowd, maybe he has been counselled overnight by the disciples after the table turning episode from the day before.
Or maybe he is also not sure himself – by what authority does he teach, heal and reach out?
By the time Matthew’s gospel is written down the sense of who Jesus is much clearer in the minds of the early Christians; but right back then when it was happening – I am not sure that Jesus is sure, either. Does he understand who he is being called to be? And he is standing in the Temple in Passover week – tensions are running high, the Jewish leaders and the Romans are doing their usual jostling for power. By what authority does he do these things? This is the central question of the Jesus Christ Superstar show that we will see at Q theatre at the end of October, with the classic line from the song: “JC Superstar – do you think you’re who they say you are?” By what authority do you do these things?
In our post modern world “authority” is not something we have much time for. Unless you are in the army. We prefer a freedom that lets us decide for ourselves, and makes each individual the final arbiter of truth for themselves. We value and encourage independent thinking in our young people. At school now young people are taught how to be discerning amongst the avalanches of information and opinion that is the internet. Yet even that independent thinking requires reference points and benchmarks. By what values and principles do we make decisions? How do we decide what is best for our children?
As a country we have just been through a collective decision making process – an election – and it was a pretty bruising experience for many. How does each political party pick up now and move forward, whether winners or losers – by whose authority do they speak?
Those of us who are followers of Jesus look to his life as a source of authority in ours – yet even he is pretty elusive on this topic by refusing to answer questions! He does not give us a list of do’s and don’ts to tick off – he says broad things like love each other and follow me.
So we have to look more I think to the manner of his living (and dying) to find the source of his authority.
Our first reading today sums that all up rather well. Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi, written while Paul was in prison, and writing or maybe quoting a hymn of the early church – “Jesus, though he was in the form of God, emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness, humbled himself.” So the pattern of life which Jesus offers us is one of humility and service. This is the authority by which he does these things – the authority which comes with humility. Later on he will take a towel and wash the feet of his disciples as a slave would have done. He offers himself, pours out his life as once offerings were made in the Temple. The technical theological term for this concept is “kenosis” which means “self emptying”.
One scholar says “Kenosis is the essential character of the biblical God”. God’s creative energy is always directed to the love of creation and humanity. It is always outward focused and about loving, not condemning. God pours God’s self into creation, and God offers us Jesus as part of that outpouring of love; in turn Jesus empties himself in service of Gods’ beloved children.
And so by what authority do we act, by what authority do we discern and make decisions for our lives and our children. We model ourselves as best we can on the life of this Jesus, this Jesus who reached out to the last, and the lost and the least. This Jesus who challenged the political and religious leaders to be true to their calling. And when they were not true to that calling, and turned on him instead, he poured out his life, literally, showing that death had no power over him.
So we share our lives with those around us, those who need us, we pour ourselves out in their service, as individuals and as community. And when we are the ones in need, we graciously accept the help of those around us. Sometimes it is harder to receive help than to offer it. But we receive it not just because we need it but because we are thereby allowing others to fulfill their call to offer themselves in the ongoing creative actions of God. If kenosis, self emptying, is the essential character of God, then it is our essential character too. By what authority does Jesus do these things? By what authority do we live our lives? By the authority of the one who creates, and loves, and dies, and lives again, so that we too might live.
 William Greenaway p112 Feasting on the Word vol 4 (year A)