“And when [Jesus] entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came up to him as he was teaching, and said, ‘By what authority are you doing these things and who gave you this authority?” [It’s important to note the context for this question which is prompted in the previous verses, 12-17 – when Jesus had, the day prior, overturned the tables of the money changers in the temple and healed the blind and lame.] (Matthew 21:23)
To a large degree, deep inside, the question of the chief priests and elders is ours as well … is it not? It’s the question of all humanity at bottom – especially in our age marked by increasing ambiguity and plurality, with its seeming cultural answer of relativism (You know, “Whatever!”) or even disingenuous indifference (You’ve heard it: “It is what it is.”) There is a longing in the human spirit for ultimate authority. To be in touch with, or know that which we can finally trust.
Now hang-in there with me on some brief but key historical highlights of this quest, for understanding the matter of authority. … The ancient Greeks sought for it in eudaimonia (e.g. Aristotle’s “happiness” or “well-being”). The Medievalists’ thought of auctoritas or “authority” in terms of power (e.g. Duns Scotus’ potestas absoluta). Or later, philosophers like Immanuel Kant, during the Enlightenment (1685-1815), thought of authority in terms of reason – with their battle cry: “Dare to think [for yourself]” (sapere aude). And in our own time, authority has become invested in Science and Technology (where techne or Scientia, in terms of “technique,” has replaced sapientia or “wisdom.”)
From infancy we’re raised on various authorities. Authority permeates our lives. We accept it. We reformulate it. We reject it. And still, even in our rejection, we presuppose it. It’s vital for our lives, because authority marks where we place our trust. But where, in whom or what do we place this trust of ultimate authority? We ask the question of authority because, if we’re honest with ourselves, we’re so unsure of our own – or our constant disappointment by the authorities around us. Just consider the political authorities in America in 2017.
Between now and this weekend, I’d like for you to read the Gospel text from Matthew 21:23-32, and ponder these two questions: (1) “What is the meaning of Jesus’ distinction between an authority “from heaven or from men” (see v.25a)? Is this reference to “heaven” just some easy cop-out to some pie-in-the-sky? … And (2) “Is either brother in the parable that Jesus tells, in vv. 28-31 our Gospel text, really obedient to the father’s request? Is there another son, somewhere in this Gospel text who is, and how so?” Perhaps the matter of authority, real and lasting authority, comes down to a matter of obedience. What thinkest thou?
In the meantime, God’s grace and peace …