by what authority?

Lt. Oliver North testifies regarding Iran-Contra (July 9, 1987).

Matthew 21:23-27

For Sunday, September 25th, 2011
Proper 21

“By what authority are you doing this”  This is the question that the power brokers of Jesus’ day put to him.  These power brokers were “the chief priests” and “the elders of the people“.  The “chief priests” were senior members of the priestly aristocracy that held the keys to Jewish power.  A contemporary U.S. equivalent might be the U.S. Senate.  The “elders of the people” were key civic leaders in the community who worked alongside the chief priests.  A U.S. equivalent might be the U.S. House of Representatives.

There is a reason that “the chief priests” and the “elders of the people” are mentioned here rather than than “The Pharisees and the Sadducees” as are often found elsewhere.  While “Pharisees” and “Saducees” were politically-oriented designations (like “Republican” and “Democrat”), “chief priests” and “elders of the people” were structurally-oriented designations (like “Senate” and “House of Representatives”).  The challenge being made here was not on the basics of politics: it was on the basis of social power (1).

By come into Jerusalem the way he did, very publicly, drawing on the Jewish prophetic imagery by riding on a colt and donkey,  with the resulting groundswell of Jewish popular support, Jesus was shaking the existing social order to its foundation.  The power brokers in Jerusalem were worried.  They responded by forming the equivalent of a “Special Congressional Committee on Social Order (SCCSO) (a.k.a. ” The Committee”) and then subpoenaed Jesus to appear.  If this happened today Jesus’ testimony would have been carried live on all the major television news outlets much as Lt. Oliver North’s testimony was carried during the Iran-Contra scandal.

In his testimony Jesus apologized for causing offense, retreated to his holy huddle, and was never heard from again.  Okay . . .  that’s not accurate.  What he did instead was argue that he lived in a Christian country and that everyone should return to the Bible.  Okay . . . that’s not accurate either.  What did he actually do?  He answered The Committee’s question with a question.  His question was grounded in something undeniable from the Committee’s own experience but for which they had no explanation: “John’s Baptism, where did it come from? . . .”  The Committee was well aware that something remarkable was happening in the desert.  There was a populist figure named John the Baptist who was having a remarkable impact in saving lives and changing lives through a ministry of baptism.

This was… awkward for the Committee.  If they answered, “From God himself,” then Jesus would say, “Then why aren’t you listening?”  If they answered, “From men who only think they are hearing from God,” they would drive a wedge between themselves and a very popular movement.  So they took door number 3: “We don’t know.”  This made clear that they weren’t ready to engage Jesus honestly and transparently so there was nothing further for him to say.  He refused to answer further questions.

Let’s then conclude by drawing out two implications.  First, for those of us who stand with Jesus, we must be willing when called upon to speak truth to power in the form of countering questions.  If for example, the ACLU asks, “By what authority are you bringing religious considerations into public schools?” we might answer, “By what authority are you excluding them?”  We might press further with this: “If you really believe in diversity then why would you move to exclude religious considerations from the mix?”

Second, in our advocacy for the grace and peace brought into the world by the good news of Jesus, let us engage skeptics on the ground of shared experience.  Let us not quote Scripture to them, ignore them, or demagogue them.  Let us rather leverage our shared experience with them.  For example, what really happened in the Wall Street meltdown?  Have we not all suffered financially as a result.  Was it not a total failure of ethics?  Was it not immoral? (2)  And if so, what ought to be done about it? (3)

1)  Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Matt. 21, v. 23.  Also with appreciation for insights on “Jesus in Context” by Dr. Michael Crow in “Multiplying J-Mentors”, Missiology, January 2008.
2)  Read Michael Lewis, “The Big Short“. 
3)  For a fascinating conversation on this particular question please see


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