Scripture: Matthew 21:23-32
Key verse: (23) “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”
Reflection: When I was a child, Walter Cronkite anchored the CBS evening news. There were only four television channels then and Cronkite was my parent’s choice of news anchor. He finished every broadcast, “And that’s the way it is.” And by golly it was. In fact, Cronkite was named, “The Most Trusted Man in America,” in a public opinion poll in the 1970’s. Can you imagine a news anchor being given that kind of authority these days? What if the CBS news anchor closed their broadcast with, “And that’s the way it is,” today? Half the country would respond, “So says the liberal media,” and turn to Fox News to get the real story. Others might question why a middle aged white man got to decide the way it was in the first place. By what authority are such statements made?
Authority is a tricky term in our day. What do you consider authorities? Government used to be an authority, but today politicians are held in exceedingly low regard. Law Enforcement officers are often referred to as “the authorities,” though many in our society question police tactics and the ethics behind them. Pastors used to carry some measure of authority, but now we’ve become like news anchors — if you don’t like what one pastor says, then find another who speaks your language. In his book, The Death of Expertise, Tom Nichols suggests that while technology and increasing levels of education have exposed people to more information than ever before, this has also fueled a surge in narcissistic and misguided intellectual egalitarianism. In other words, we are our own authority. If I believe it, then it’s true. He writes, “Today, everyone knows everything: with only a quick trip through WebMD or Wikipedia, average citizens believe themselves to be on an equal intellectual footing with doctors and diplomats.” It’s certainly true in the religious world as the vast majority of best-selling Christian authors have little or no theological education. Yet people consume their religious opinions as if they are the gospel itself.
When I get myself going on this, I end up feeling like the Pharisees in our reading from Matthew. They were the religious experts of Jesus’ day, and they were very concerned with authority. “By what authority are you doing these things?” they ask Jesus. Jesus gets playful with them, saying, “I’ll ask you a question and if you tell me the answer then I’ll tell you by what authority I do these things.” He goes on to ask them about the authority of John’s baptism of repentance — by God or by human beings? They’re stumped, and so “the experts” are forced to say, “We don’t know.” So Jesus decides not to answer their question. He goes on to tell a parable about a father with two sons. One refuses what the father asks, but then eventually does it; the other says he’ll do it, but never does. Actions speak louder than words.
Time and time again in the gospels, the crowds are astounded by Jesus’ actions. “He teaches as one with authority,” they say, “and not as the scribes and the Pharisees.” Jesus doesn’t just talk about loving neighbors, he lives it out, healing, feeding, teaching, forgiving. He lives out love in all he does, and so he has authority with the people. As Christians, Christ is our authority. His is Lord, no one and nothing else is — no worldly leader, no political party, no news media, no earthly authority, not even my own opinion. What he says goes. “Blessed are the poor in spirit … blessed are those who mourn … blessed are the meek.” (Mt. 5:3-5) “Love the Lord your God with all you are and your neighbor as yourself.” (Mt. 22:37) “Whatever you do to the least of these you do to me.” (Mt. 25:40) “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” (Matthew 28:18)
Beloved, that’s the way it is!
Prayer: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven … for thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever. Amen.”
Author: Joe Clifford
[Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved].