Updated: Dec 13, 2018
Every now and then, I catch myself sounding an awful lot like my parents. In particular, I’ve noticed that I’m always talking to my kids about their “attitude.” When did I become so obsessed with attitudes as opposed to actions? Probably about the same time I became convinced of my own parental authority. “But why?” they ask me; and I reply, “because I said so.” Human authority figures like me rarely put up with too many questions, I’m afraid. And yet, somehow, we demand no less than total obedience with a positive attitude and a happy heart, which is quite a tall order when you stop and think about it.
In this week’s gospel passage, Matthew 21:23-32, Jesus deals with the question of human and divine authority and the problem of credibility. The political and religious authorities of the day, the “chief priests and the elders of the people,” approach Jesus in the temple and ask him the loaded question, “By what authority are you doing (Greek verb: poieo) these things, and who gave you this authority?” (21:23)
Now, if this were a Sunday School class, some kids’ hands would be waving in the air as they pleaded, “Please, pick me! I know this one! I know the answer! Pick me!” The correct Sunday School answer to the elders’ question is, of course, God. God was and is the authority behind the words and actions of Jesus Christ, as he himself testifies in several other places. But, it’s very important and significant, I think, that Jesus does not answer the question in this manner. He is aware that the elders are not really asking a sincere question, but setting a trap. And Jesus is sensitive to the fact that the problem of authority and credibility in this world is not easily solved by playing the “God” card.
If you stop and think about it, there are at least two sides to almost every issue of importance, and authority figures speaking in the name of God on both sides. Both Confederates and Union soldiers in the Civil War insisted the Bible said that God was on their side. Despite their opposite stances on the Vietnam War, both Billy Graham and Martin Luther King, Jr., claimed to speak for God. The problem of human credibility has everybody looking for a source of divine, absolute authority, but still, we can only look at anything from our own human point of view.
That’s why Jesus’ response to the elders’ question is so unique and still surprising today. He answers their question with a question of his own, “Did the baptism of John come from heaven (that is, from God), or from men?” (21:25) I suppose this is one of those questions that is better than any answer we could give. First, it confounds the elders, who are not really interested in learning from Jesus but entangled in the politics of language. Then, it raises, but does not finally answer the question of where true authority comes from. Jesus, who is the only Son of God and God incarnate, surely does not need to cite any authority but himself. And yet, he chooses to cite the authority of the mortal man, John the baptist, to help us understand the source of his own authority! On the one hand, all human authority comes from humans in all-too-human situations, like the questionable prophet, John, eating locusts on the banks of the Jordan. On the other hand, the source of all true authority in heaven and earth is God. The all-too-humanness of the prophet is no excuse for not recognizing in him the true authority of the Word of God, Jesus seems to be saying. All true authority, wherever and in whomever it may be found, has one and the same source in God.
Next, Jesus compares this kind of authority that comes from God to the authority of a father figure in a parable about two sons (21:28-30). Rather than argue about the authority of the father figure, Jesus’ parable shifts the question with this parable to the subject of a child’s obedient faith, or trust. Apparently, these elders need to learn what it means to be a child of God before they go on worrying about the nature of authority. In this story, one child stubbornly defies his parents at first, but later changes his mind and does what he knows is right. The second one answers, “Yes, sir,” but forgets or fails to do his duty. Jesus poses another question to the elders: “which one did (Greek verb again: poieo) his father’s will?” Obviously, the first one, even though he had a real bad attitude about it at first.
Jesus’ final words in this passage tie it all together, and make it clear that this parable is about the unlikely but true authority of God that works through unlikely, all-too-human vessels (i.e. Jesus and the unlicensed John the baptist) and is credible, believable, and actionable to all, even “tax collectors and prostitutes” (21:32) who probably ought not to be the only ones recognizing the authority of God in Jesus.
In the end, this passage makes it clear that the true and spiritual authority of God’s Word can be known on earth today as it is in heaven, as surely as John the baptist and Jesus spoke on earth for God. God’s kingdom authority may not be found in the first places we would naturally look, however. Humans easily misunderstand authority and misplace our trust for all sorts of wrong reasons. We confuse pledges of allegiance and outward shows of unquestioning loyalty, for example, with truly heroic actions that spring from mature faith and the obedience of love.
God doesn’t. To be sure, our heavenly Father, the ultimate authority figure Jesus represents, wants true loyalty, mature faith, and heartfelt loving obedience as least as much as we do from our own children: what John Wesley so often referred to as, “the faith of a son.” But, the reason he gets it from us in the end is not just because God demands it, but because in Jesus he comes down to our level, forgives our protests, listens to our questions, and patiently waits for us to act on what we say we want and believe.
Lord, forgive us who presume to be mothers and fathers but need to learn again how to be your children. Give me the courage to ask sincere questions and allow myself to be search today by your loving Spirit. Help me to change my mind if I am found in the wrong and so be an example of the obedience of faith for others. Christ, have mercy and incline our hearts again to do your will.
Why does Jesus refer to the authority of John the baptist, rather than to God, the Bible, Moses, or David to defend his own credibility?
What’s the crucial difference between the two sons in Jesus’ parable? Does this story sound familiar in any way to you?
What has been your attitude or actions toward all kinds of authority? Your parents? Are they consistent with who you know yourself to be?
What are you like in any position of authority? What would others say about you? Does this reflect something of God’s loving authority?