Ez. 18. 1-4; 25-32; Phil. 2. 1-13; Mt. 21. 23-32
Theme: The Authority of Jesus
‘By what authority are you doing these things?’, ask the chief priest and the elders in the Jerusalem temple. ‘By what authority is Jesus doing these things?’
This is a question which accompanies the earthly life of Jesus all throughout his public ministry. During the various healings, teachings and miracles which Jesus performs, the background music to all these activities is syncopated by the rhythm of authority. It beats out like the base drum in a band giving the tempo to the rest of the music. ‘By what authority is Jesus doing these things?’
The prophet Ezekiel, in our first reading today, conveys the authoritative word of the Lord which clears up an old belief long held by much ancient peoples: the inheritance of sin. Ezekiel uses an old proverb about sour grapes to debunk the notion that children inherit their parent’s sins. ‘It is only the person who sins that shall die’, says Ezekiel, and not the children of those who sinned. This word of the Lord spoken by Ezekiel resolves this issue, because it is held to come from God. Its authority is guaranteed by the fact that this is not simply a human fabrication, but it represents God’s holy word for God’s holy people.
When we come to our second reading from the Letter to the Philippians, we are presented with one of the most beautiful hymns in the New Testament. The hymn of the self-emptying, or kenosis, of Jesus as the basis of his authority. It is because Jesus empties himself that God the Father fills him with His divine authority. ‘Therefore, God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name’. This conveying of the authority of Jesus by the Father is the divine mandate which underpins the authenticity of the words and deeds of Jesus. In Jesus, we really do meet the one true God and, to have seen Jesus is to have seen the Father.
So, when we come to our Gospel from Matthew, we are well prepared for a clash between Jesus and the chief priests and the elders in the temple of Jerusalem. This Gospel helps us to see that these religious authorities had become blind to the true source of authority. They had lost touch with the prophetic spirit of the word of the Lord and had substituted it for all kinds of human rules and regulations. They had returned to the mindset that the prophet Ezekiel was criticizing when he debunked the old proverbs about sin and its responsibility.
It would be the tax collectors and the prostitutes who would be the first to recognize this true source of authority in Jesus, because he was able to cut through the pseudo-authority of the chief priests and the elders in the temple. And what was this pseudo-authority of the chief priests and the elders? It was the false authority of occupying the chair of Moses, but of failing to truly serve the people who were in need. They had built up a system of privileges which benefited themselves and this ostracized the very people whom the law was meant to protect in the first place. Instead, the law had become the preserve of the religious authorities who interpreted it in ways which could only leave many out in the cold.
Jesus comes into this situation and performs deeds which demonstrate who he is. He is the authority of God in flesh and blood. The word of the Lord spoken again to God’s people to liberate them from oppressive beliefs. The deeds of healing and the miracles of Jesus enact before the very eyes of the chief priests and elders that God is concerned to restore the house of Israel. The authority of Jesus ensures that this house will have solid foundations. It will be supported by the corner stone which in Jesus is God himself.
Jesus comes to demonstrate what this authoritative rule of God amongst us looks like. It looks like liberation; freedom to follow the word of the Lord in an authentic way and not in a way that had been skewed by the chief priests and the elders of the temple. Such a word of the Lord is based on kenosis, self-emptying, which takes place in the act of God to share in the life of people through becoming human.
In Jesus, we are able to see what it means to be human. He shows us that the more human we become, the more we are able to share in the divine life. The two are not opposed in Jesus. They are brought together in the one person of the divine Son, so that we may be united with God.
‘By what authority are you doing these things?’
This question is one which each of us should pause to consider. Do I accept that the words and deeds of Jesus follow from who he is? All these things proceed from the fact that Jesus is the Son of God. This is why they carry authority and this is why in both his words and in his deeds we can be assured that we are encountering the living God and not merely one more prophet or good man to emulate. No, the words and deeds of Jesus are the working out of the authority given to him by the Father as we hear in the Letter to the Philippians.
It is in this authority that we as Christians are called to work. So, we do not preach ourselves through our deeds and through our words. Through what we say and what we do we help to reveal the power and the authority of Christ to heal and to liberate. We are freed from having to act like the chief priests and elders by the fact that the building which we are erecting is not our own house. It is the house of the Lord built upon the word of the Lord.
Let us pray that each of us may come to know this authority of the Lord ever more deeply in our lives so that we, like the prophet Ezekiel, may point away from the false beliefs of the chief priests and the elders and towards to true words of the living Son of God.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.