By Michael Ellard
‘By what authority are you doing these things?’ the crowds in the temple courtyard hear as the chief priests and elders of the city confront Jesus. It’s hardly surprising, for he has all but taken over the very centre of religious power for the region, driving out the money lenders and stall holders where they are now all standing, healing those who have come to seek his help, and teaching all who want to listen to his Father’s words explained in ways not heard before. But is the question raised on behalf of Rome, to whom the elders are answerable, or do they raise it in fear of their own authority? Or could it be they have begun to perceive at last that Jesus is their long awaited Messiah the Old Testament has promised them?
Facing his challengers Jesus asks a question in return, ‘where did John’s Baptism come from, heaven or men?’ There would be tension as the crowds await their reply. If they were to say, ‘from heaven’ Jesus would be justified in asking why they hadn’t listened to John at the time, following him in their own teaching. But if they are to respond otherwise, then the crowd will surely turn upon them, for the people who had followed John had held him in high regard for all he had taught and done ahead of Jesus. The priests and elders were caught in a ‘no win’ situation, their reply was to unmask them for what they really were, as they are now forced to admit they simply didn’t know! In that moment Jesus shows them to be, not the representatives of God they purport to be, serving the people, but instead people of self importance, seeking both position and authority through their own appointment.
The question though, ‘by what authority are you doing these things?, reaches far beyond the pages of Matthews Gospel as we consider the Gospel for our world today. For it resonates strongly to the present time, challenging all who take up the mantle of leadership in our communities throughout the world. It asks the individual ‘will you have the courage to do what is right for those around you, and the world in which we all live, even if the decisions that need to be made may have to be at the expense of popularity or personal gain?’
Jesus took on the responsibility of the authority his Father handed him at his Baptism with a sense of service, not importance, to those around him. He was compassionate to all people, many of whom gathered around him in the courtyard, content to sit with them, great and poor alike, knowing many had made mistakes in their lives, but were seeking to understand a better way of knowing God’s message, and seeking to change their ways for the future.
As Jesus hears the reply of the priests and elders, he tells the parable of the two sons. One says he will go and work in the vineyard, but all the time has no intension of doing so, whilst the other openly rebels at the request, but then quietly changes his mind later. Jesus asks his audience, ‘which son do you think did what his father asked him?’ and the answer we hear seems obviously wrong for us now, living in a 21st century world. Yet, for those gathered around Jesus at that time, the culture was very different to that we know today. To defy one’s elders, or father of the household in public, was to bring disgrace, not just to oneself, but upon the whole household. It was better for the whole family’s appearance in society to be compliant to the request, even though underneath there may be no intension to follow it through.
The two stories may appear unrelated, yet the more we understand the ways in which Jesus took the responsibility of the authority God gave him, the more we see the thread of ‘serving the people’ running through each part of Mathew’s narrative. For if leadership is be rooted in serving people and not self importance, then agreeing to follow such leadership, will require an equal change of mind by the people, being prepared to serve their leaders in return, so all work together in mutual respect.
Jesus sets the bar very high when he asks us all to consider how we will both use and abide by authority in our lives. Our reactions to the question will affect not just ourselves, but those around us, and the environment on which we depend. Our answer also affects, not just the present generation of which we are part, but our children, their children and future generations to come. He knows we will get many things wrong, sometimes failing spectacularly in our ways with far reaching consequences. But Jesus’ authority is full of compassion for all who listen, his love and forgiveness allows us all to change our minds about decisions made in the past, even those made today. So sometimes the last to change will be the first to be welcomed by Jesus, but the first will not be excluded if they continue in his values each day.