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?’ Jesus said to them, ‘I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?’ And they argued with one another, ‘If we say, “From heaven”, he will say to us, “Why then did you not believe him?” But if we say, “Of human origin”, we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.’ So they answered Jesus, ‘We do not know.’ And he said to them, ‘Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.
Today’s reading centres around a word that has been particularly relevant this year. That word is authority. Throughout the coronavirus pandemic people have struggled with the decisions made and imposed by those in authority. Before the pandemic (if you can remember those days) our own government tried to avoid the authority of parliament, or so it was ruled by the Supreme Court, by attempting to impose, on its own authority, a prolonged suspension of the parliamentary process. At this end of the year we are witnessing almost unbelievable attempts to undermine the authority of a national election in America. Jesus’ response to the questioning of his authority by the chief priests and elders is as apposite as ever.
In our modern Western world we have developed complex political systems through which we choose representatives who are charged with the task of making and enacting decisions on our behalf. The systems we have evolved are broadly based on those of the ancient world, and especially those of ancient Greece and Rome. Down the centuries those systems have been refined. The New Testament principles of love and service have influenced our law-making, although the Old Testament principle of vengeance is still in the background. There is also a greater fairness in the way the whole population is now allowed and encouraged to take part in the process. We are all engaged in the system that invests authority in our representative and decision-making bodies. And yet we all, from time to time, struggle with the concept of authority.
When decisions are made that we, personally, dislike we rail against the decision made and those who made the decision. This is where the chief priests and elders are in today’s reading. Those religious leaders were at the end of centuries of tradition. It was their role to lead their community in the hopeful expectation of the coming of the Messiah, the Anointed One of God. Unfortunately, as the ages had passed, they had carved out a comfortable and self-serving version of their religious tradition and teaching, a version that could not recognize the Messiah who was standing before them in the Temple.
So often we are like those chief priests and elders. We are better informed than ever, we have easy access to information on a scale that has never been the case before. We absorb that information and create a ‘future’ for ourselves based on our incomplete and mistaken ‘knowledge’. We struggle, and sometimes rebel against, authority. We form a version of life for ourselves and we quickly convince ourselves that our version is the only correct way forward. Sadly, this places us in exactly the same position as the chief priests and the elders in today’s reading! We are all called to hear and respect the authority of God. As Christmas gets nearer we are, of course, having to respect the decisions made by our government in respect to keeping ourselves and others safe. However, we are also called to prepare ourselves for the celebration of God coming into the human story in the form of a humble baby in a lowly stable in a small hilltop town in the Middle East. We are called to set aside our self-opinionated ways of living and listen for the authority of God’s word. Then we are charged with the responsibility of living out that word every moment of every day.