Questioning God’s authority should not even be a thing. How can there be any doubt in our minds that God, our creator, the one who created everything: our beautiful planet, spiraling galaxies, the depths of the ocean… us, and the people we love… How could God not have authority over it? How could we doubt that God is in control, and that even though we don’t always have a handle on what God is doing, surely God knows what to do and has the authority to do it.
Still, that is exactly what the people in today’s Gospel reading do. After witnessing miracles, healing, teaching (with authority!), even casting out demons and the power of evil in the world… after witnessing these things they ask “by what authority do you do these things?” It’s not “praise God, Alleluia”, or “surely you are the Messiah” (which would make sense), or even “thank you.” It’s “Who gave you the authority to do these things?”
“These things” of course include incredible acts of healing, forgiving, loving. Jesus was on Earth in the business of saving people. Serving. Setting in motion a feast where all people would be welcome to eat together. Yes, he broke the rules sometimes. Yes, he strayed from tradition. But don’t the ends justify his actions? Didn’t they rejoice at the blessings Jesus brought into the world? Don’t we rejoice at the presence of Christ in our own lives and the world, even though following Jesus isn’t always the most socially acceptable thing to do. Yet like the people in the story, we have seen the amazing things Jesus does in our lives, and the world. We have seen miracles. So why get hung up on authority?
Authority is a loaded term. It can have all sorts of meanings and context. Authority helps us know who is in charge and helps keep order. Good use of authority can be a way to protect and help people. But authority can also be misused. Authority can be threatening-dangerous. Being in trouble with the authorities is not a good thing, especially when those in authority are acting in injustice.
I think what it boils down to is that authority means someone else is in control, and that can either be good or bad. If someone else is in control, we are not, and we can quickly become afraid.
In this sense, I can understand where the Pharisees and Sadducees are coming from with this question of authority. It’s not that they didn’t want to heal or help people. The Pharisees and Sadducees weren’t bad people: they wanted the same thing we all do: to witness God’s presence in our world: justice, peace. But Jesus wasn’t playing by the rules. He was throwing their traditions completely out. Mocking them even. These were traditions that were kept for a thousand years, rooted in scripture. Where did Jesus get the authority to suddenly do something different, even if he was healing and saving?
Our communities today are changing. The church is changing, and this means that churches are finding ways to do something different. We are learning, as we have a hundred times, that proclaiming God’s reign: healing, loving, and serving, often means finding new ways to do it, and sometimes this means changing our traditions. We even have to throw them out sometimes if they’re not working. Of course, we don’t like this! It’s hard for us to accept changing any of the traditions we have, even if we know it will help others know Christ. Who could possibly have the authority to tell us to change the way we do things?
Early Christians struggled with authority in a different way. Being a Christian in the early church meant going against the authorities: the emperor, and Roman rule. Declaring allegiance to Jesus as Lord was a dangerous political act. Proclaiming that God had all the authority, not Rome, cost many people their lives through brutal executions. Yet the church survived, and in fact thrived, as persecuted Christians followed the authority of Christ and felt called to love and serve others, share the meal- even if this meant going against authorities.
People all over the world today are persecuted for their religious beliefs-especially when one’s religion goes against authority. Executions and religious violence are still sad realities. We see violence between Jews and Muslims, and religious intolerance in our own country. Protests by Christians have broken out in China and have been met with violence as authorities try to silence Christianity, tearing down steeples and other religious symbols.
Yet God’s people have persevered, as we continue to live out our call to love and serve others. History shows us, and the Gospels tell us that it is not easy to trust in God’s authority-not when there are so many authorities in our world that threaten to silence us or make us afraid.
What are these authorities in your life? In our world? What is holding us back from trusting God’s authority and boldly serving and transforming our communities with love? What is telling us to be afraid? Financial hardships, an unfair economy? Ebola outbreaks, or other diseases? Refugee children on the border. War looms around the globe, many people know more violence than we will experience in our own lives. It’s tragic, really. In our own society we know violence all too well though. Hate crimes, including the recent beating of a same-sex couple in Philadelphia. For some people it is not even safe to be who they are. For others, home is not a safe place. Endless and senseless gun violence. The list goes on and on.
Maybe the people in the story doubted Jesus’ authority because it seemed too good to be true. Maybe we doubt Jesus’ authority because it seems too good to be true. This news that God is here and on our side is good news! It is transforming the world and our lives: bringing healing, and love, and peace, and all those things that Jesus does. It is a never-ending feast where all are welcome. Maybe we doubt Jesus’ authority because we live in a world that is so tainted by sin that it is hard for us to believe this good news.
All of the authorities of the world have failed us. Every administration, every governor, every government, no matter how great or admiral… the authorities of this world have failed to deliver us from the evil in the world. From the suffering. They have failed to fix our broken world. But this good news of Christ, this Gospel: this is God’s authority. Jesus loved and served and healed by God’s authority. The Gospel tells us that we can’t save ourselves by any human authority. But this is God’s authority. As God’s people, we have witnessed miraculous acts of love and service. WE have loved and served in miraculous ways that we can do because we serve through God’s authority.
People may doubt because of those authorities in life that threaten to hod us back: fear, suffering, death. But the good news is that Christ has authority over all of those things, and frees us from them. At the end of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus shows us his authority over all of those things that cause us to live in fear. Just when it looks like the authorities of the world had gotten their way: executing the hope of the world on a cross, Jesus shows us his power, even over death-the power of God’s love for the world.
And at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, when Jesus has been resurrected, when all of those who lived in fear, those who doubted, those who questioned his authority see him, he gives a wonderful promise: “by the way, in case there was any doubt, I have been given all authority over everything in heaven and Earth.”
And with those words he sends us out to serve others and fearlessly tell them about the good news of Jesus, who has been given authority over all of the things in this world; to bring healing to the nations, peace, and sharing God’s love with others. And he promises to be with us, even to the end of the age.
Note: Image “Young people have no respect for authority nowadays” is copyright (c) 2010 Alexandre Dulaunoy and made available under license Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic