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Spiritual Reflection – Pentecost 17

Spiritual Reflection – By Whose Authority?

When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” (Matt. 21:23 NRSV)

The question of authority has been very topical under Covid 19 restrictions. We had the well publicised incident of a certain member of the public challenging the authority of the management and staff at a Bunnings store to insist that she wear a face mask before entering the store. Another case was that of a young female challenging the authority of a member of the Victoria Police to prevent her from passing through a coronavirus checkpoint. And of course we have the more general outrage from sections of the Melbourne public challenging the authority of the Victorian Government to impose the severe restrictions associated with the Stage 4 lockdown. In each of these instances, authority has been conferred upon the relevant people by others.

“What gives you the authority to do this?”, the chief priests and elders ask Jesus as he teaches people in the temple in Jerusalem. The chief priests were administrators of the Temple, its buildings, and its treasures. They were comprised of the ruling high priest, former acting but deposed high priests, and leading members of the families from which the high priests were selected. Their authority was conferred on them both by tradition and by others. They are therefore questioning Jesus as to which official or tradition has given him the authority to do what he is doing. 

The answer of course, is that he is doing it by his own authority. His authority was clear from the very beginning. Simon Peter and Andrew, together with James and John, drop their nets and immediately leave everything behind when Jesus commands them to follow him. The Gospel of Mark, the earliest of the Gospels, tells us that when Jesus began his public ministry everyone was amazed at his authority. “They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” (Mark 1:22 NRSV)

In typical Jesus fashion, when asked the question by the chief priests and elders, he responds with a question of his own. Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” (Matt. 21:24–25a NRSV) The chief priests and elders realise that whichever way they answer this question they are going to lose credibility, so they simply say, “We do not know”, to which Jesus replies, “Neither will I tell you by which authority I am doing these things”. 

The authority of Jesus has always been questioned. The miracle stories that we read in the Gospels are the Gospel writers’ way of proving the authority that Jesus has over everything that challenges the reign of God. But they aren’t the reason that we should believe in Jesus. The real glory of Jesus is revealed in his humanity, which as Paul tells us in the Letter to the Philippians, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Phil. 2:6–11 NRSV)

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