When [Jesus] 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?”
Do you remember where you learned about authority? When I was a child, I had pretty clear ideas about the way that things should be done, and these ideas did not always match those of my parents. Because the authority of the household rested with them, however, I learned pretty quickly to obey the rules that they established. As I grew older, I recognized that at church, authority rested with the pastor, and at school, that authority was held by my teachers and administrators. Because these individuals were given authority, I listened to them—I obeyed their rules (for the most part) and believed what they said. Some of the power that these individuals held over me was relational and some of it was societal and all of it was contextual. In other words, my teachers did not question why my parents made me eat my green vegetables, even when I didn’t want to do so, just as my parents did not question what my teachers taught me—each had authority in their given context.
In today’s reading from Matthew, we see that the leading priests and elders have come to Jesus and have questioned his authority. The day before this, Jesus had cleared the Temple of the merchants and the money changers, and now here he is teaching in that same place. I would imagine that they think, “Who does this guy think he is?” He has circumvented the societal authority conferred upon the temple priests and elders because of who they are, the knowledge they hold, and the roles they play. Can you imagine something similar happening at St. Catherine’s? If a person unknown to us came in and removed all of the pews and began preaching in the round, would you imagine that you might feel the same?
Yes, that example does not carry the same weight as reordering the Temple, but imagine how it would feel to have the structures that shape our identity questioned or upended. We have seen some of that happen during the pandemic—everything seems to be constantly shifting, and it’s unclear who holds authority. Is that authority given because of knowledge or because of the position one holds? So where do we place our trust? To whom do we grant authority and how do we use our own?
In our world, just as in Jesus’ time, it is easy for us to conflate authority given by human structures with the ultimate authority. However, that authority rests solely with God. Jesus used his authority to serve— “to bind up the brokenhearted and set the captive free.” How might we use our authority to do the same?