Reading: Matthew 21.23-27
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.’Matthew 21.23-27 NRSV
‘Authority’ is a word that carries a great deal of weight. It is a word that is associated with power. Whether we use the word in the context of an authoritative tome or of a prestigious office, it always suggests something or someone we should take seriously, something or someone that should take precedence over our inadequate and ill-informed point of view.
In today’s reading we hear of a moment when the chief priests and the elders of the people questioned the authority of Jesus. This passage comes towards the end of Matthew’s gospel. The religious leaders have heard Jesus’ teaching, they have seen his acts of healing and they have witnessed his miraculous signs. They have also seen and heard Jesus challenge the laws and customs of their faith. It is in this context that they ask: By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority? The chief priests and the elders of the people recognized the power of Jesus’ words and actions, but they doubted the source of that power.
Jesus’ response to his interrogators is not a statement of fact, but another question: Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin? In this question Jesus is challenging us all to reflect upon the depth and sincerity of our faith. Jesus is asking us how seriously we take our baptism into the universal company of those who profess a faith in Jesus Christ. Does our baptism guide and strengthen us, or do we treat its life-changing nature as something we can negotiate and manipulate to our own advantage?
The first century religious leaders used their political instincts to inform their non-committal response to Jesus’ question. Sadly, two thousand years later, we do the same. In matters of faith, as well as in matters of secular law, we prevaricate. We seek a justification for manipulating the straightforward into a shape that suits our personal whims and fancies. Whether we are trying to justify breaking a speed limit when the law requires us to drive slower, or whether we are trying to find a way of justifying our reluctance to proclaim our faith, Jesus’ question is a challenge to us all. What value do we place on our baptism?
Let us pray that we might never doubt the authority of God’s law. Let us pray that we might never doubt the power of Christ to heal and transform. Let us pray that we might stand firm as baptized members of the universal company of Christ’s Church on earth.