The Nature of True Authority: A sermon on Matthew 21

By the Rev. Anna Doherty

Today’s gospel is about the nature of true authority.

At the start of today’s gospel, Jesus has just triumphally entered into Jerusalem.

Jesus has also overturned the tables of the money changers in the temple, cleansing the temple of the institutional, bureaucratic signs of the Temple establishment.

And ever since doing these things, people have been flocking to hear Jesus teach in the Temple.

And Jesus hasn’t left the Temple, other than to eat and sleep.

He is there every day, and people keep coming to see him.

Jesus has essentially staged a sit-in at the Temple in Jerusalem.

Which is why the chief priests and the elders come to the Temple to see Jesus.

They are seeking to undermine Jesus’ newly asserted authority.

Now, to be fair to the chief priests and the elders, authority is something we struggle with today, just as much they do.

We struggle with authority in all of its manifestations in our society.

Whether its political parties or protesters, managers or parents or the popular kids at school…

when people assume, or presume, power, and especially when people assert their power in new and different, or public ways, struggles almost always ensue.

That’s why we tend to see today’s gospel reading through a very particular lens.

Often, we presume that what’s at stake for Jesus and the Temple authorities are the similar to the same kind of power struggles that we are used to having in our own time place.

Namely, that it’s a struggle about about power and money and class and the establishment-status quo.

After all, the chief priests and the elders are part of the upper echelons of the priesthood in Jerusalem.

They come from priestly lineage, they are like the religious aristocracy of Jerusalem.

And because of their ancestral ties to the temple, the chief priests and elders are empowered by the Roman authorities to be the local leaders of Jerusalem.

They have power and influence over both the religious and political establishment.

They also, probably, have money, from the buying and trading within the Temple walls which Jesus has just disrupted.

And so, understandably, the chief priests and the elders likely first encounter Jesus with a mind towards maintaining their wealth and power…

all of which comes from their association with the Temple establishment.

The chief priests and the elders want to keep their authority over the funds and over the institution that they have hereditarily and politically been responsible for.

But Jesus turns even the question of authority on its head.

Because, while the chief priests and the elders are concerned with the inherent power dynamics of Jesus’ authority.

Who has given him this power? Can that power be de-legitimized?

Jesus is concerned about the genuineness of the person who exercises their power.

Put another way, for Jesus, the confrontation with the chief priests and the elders isn’t about class conflict or institutional conflict—it’s about hypocrisy.

For Jesus, true authority, true power comes from our actions and not from our words.

After all, the son in the parable who says he will not go to the vineyard, but then does, is the one who does the will of his father.

It’s not at all what the son says that matters; it is what he does or does not do.

And in this interaction between Jesus and the chief priests and elders, we are meant to understand that Jesus possesses true authority …

because Jesus is the one whose actions reflect what God wants for God’s people…

Not the temporary, limited, and religious-political “authority” of the priests and elders.

We live in the digital age, where talk in all its forms, on talk shows, in magazines, on social media is readily available and prolific.

And lately, it seems as though our talk is more and more confrontational and less and less about actual conversation.

Because conversation, of course, requires listening, it requires work, it requires doing and responsive action, and not just using our words to bludgeon or discredit those with whom we disagree.

So much of our society tells us that the person who speaks the loudest, or the most often, or in the cleverest, funniest, or most assertive way, is the one who is wielding authority.

For Jesus, true authority comes from what we do or do not do, not from what we say.

And as a preacher I am well aware of the irony of that statement.

One of the difficult things about hypocrisy is that it works both ways.

It is relatively easy to call those who regularly and publicly exercise their power out on whether or not their actions reflect their words.

We should and we do call out the hypocrisy of politicians, for example, or of leaders whose actions clearly do not reflect the values they profess.

But sometimes we call out that hypocrisy only in word, and not in action.

And perhaps a more painful form of hypocrisy, is when we are hypocritical to ourselves and to our own authority.

Like when we have power, but we remain blind to the ways we exercise it regularly for ourselves and those like us and not for the benefit of others who lack power and voice.

White privilege, male privilege, wealthy privilege,—they all fall into this category of hypocrisy.

Or when we lack power and we let oppressive systems dictate our actions, rather than owning or living more fully into the authority we possess.

Accepting the status quo, living in fear, identifying ourselves as victims rather than as active agents—all fall into this category of hypocrisy.

In either case our actions do not truly reflect what we believe about ourselves and God’s people.

When this happens, our words and our actions do not mesh, and our actions to not profess our beliefs as people of faith.

The truth is that exercising true authority becomes even more complicated as people of faith.

Exercising true authority is more complicated as people of faith because, to be blunt, as Christians,

we believe that all people are truly worthy, truly redeemed, truly gifted by God, and truly loved by God.

With no exceptions.

All people are empowered by God to live into the fullness of who they are called to be as people of faith.

Which means that we can’t be hypocrites to ourselves and to others, any more than our leaders or public figures can.

Jesus teaching today is not just for an elite and narrow slice of the 1st century Jewish religious establishment.

It’s not just for the politicians and public figures of our own time and place.

It’s for all of us.

We need to become aware of those places in our lives when we are living authentically as God’s people, and where we are being hypocritical.

True authority comes from God and from our actions adhering to what we believe about ourselves and others as God’s people.

We cannot live in silence or anger or fear or in acceptance of the status quo.

We live in faith, which means we live in a certain way.

And we need look no further than our own baptismal covenant to see what that way is.

This, my friends is what true authority looks like, when we live it in our lives.

Continuing to grow and to learn and to practice our faith.

Recognizing and repenting when we sin.

Loving our neighbors as ourselves.

Respecting the dignity of every human being.

Proclaiming in word and in deed the Good News of God in Christ.

And striving for justice and peace.

That’s how we promise to live as Christians.

And it is our actions that proclaim to the world the authority of God and of who we are as God’s beloved people.