by Brian P. Stoffregen at CrossMarks
Jesus' Authority Challenged
THE LARGER CONTEXT
Jesus enters Jerusalem as the humble king. The crowds are shouting "Hosanna to the Son of David!" (21:9). At the same time, the city asks, "Who is this?" (21:10). The crowds answer, "This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee" (21:11).
Then Jesus enters the temple and drives out the sellers and buyers and overturns the tables. Apparently, while Jesus is in the temple, the blind and lame come and are healed. These miracles along with the children crying, "Hosanna to the Son of David," cause the chief priests and scribes to become angry. (21:15). (Are there people today who might get a bit angry if there were miracles that disrupted the liturgy or children making too much noise in their praise of God in church?)
Jesus leaves the temple for Bethany and returns to the city and curses the fig tree.
BACK TO THE TEMPLE -- JESUS' AUTHORITY
Then comes our text. Jesus returns to the temple -- where, when he left the day before, the chief priests and scribes were angry at him. Given the deeds of the previous day, it seems only natural that the chief priests and the elders would ask about his credentials.
Jesus' response to the challenge to his authority indicates two possibilities: authority can come from heaven or from humans.
Long (Matthew) says the following about the two forms of authority:
First, there is human authority. No matter how sophisticatedly it is packaged, human authority is a matter of raw power. If you have enough people behind you or guns with you, you have it, and what you say goes, period. Divine authority, on the other hand, has to do with truth, the truth of God, the truth about who God made us to be. In the short run, human authority can appear to overwhelm divine authority -- even to crucify it -- but, ultimately, God's truth prevails. [p. 241]
Jesus responds to their question by asking a question.
They "discussed" or "dialogued" (dialogizomai) how they might answer Jesus. This discussion indicates that their authority came from humans. They don't seem to pray to ask for God's guidance. They are concerned about what Jesus or the crowds would say or do to them. With either answer, they would "lose face" (or lose "authority") before people.
Daniel Patte (The Gospel According to Matthew) makes this observation:
Even though the chief priests and the elders correctly view authority as something given to someone and not as an intrinsic part of someone's being, for them once it has been received this authority characterizes that person. For them, Jesus has an authority, and with it he does certain things. By contrast, Jesus does not speak of John's authority but rather of the authority of his baptism: "The baptism of John, whence was it"? (21:25a). In other words, authority, for Jesus, is attached to an act, to what a person does, rather than to the person. The person does not have authority; what a person does, such as the baptism performed by John, is authoritative. [p. 294]
What Jesus has done in the preceding paragraphs was to ride into Jerusalem as a humble, conquering king. He has rejected the temple activities of buying and selling with his own activity of healing -- restoring people to wholeness.
Some time ago I received a phone call from a lady whom I don't know. She had been active in a church, (but I don't know which one). Her husband hadn't been involved in church. He lost his right arm in an accident at work. While in the hospital, he had a life-changing experience with God, who had given him the choice of going or staying. He decided to stay. His life has been changed. Prior to his experience, his wife had said to him -- and she didn't know where it came from: "When you see my mother (who had died), don't go with her." With hindsight, the wife is certain that such words could have only come from God. Her life and her understanding of God has changed. The difficulty that she is having, and why she called me (as well as some other clergy), is that people from her church -- even close friends -- can't buy her husband's experience with God. "God wouldn't do something like that for someone who didn't believe in Jesus," seems to be the essence of their message to her. "It must have been the devil speaking to him." "Going with that person must have meant going to hell."
Could it be that this families' experiences with God, as well as the religious leaders' experiences with Jesus in the temple; can threaten our comfortable understanding of God and God's ways with people in the world?
A similar thing happened with the spread of the "charismatic movement" among mainline congregations. Many wouldn't believe that the true God would act like that. I'm certain that if Jesus had said that his authority came from God, they wouldn't have believed him, just as there are people who can't believe that my caller's experiences had come from God. "My faith is made up. Don't confuse me with the Bible," is a phrase I have frequently used.
I'm wondering if it is God who comes and does things that threaten and shatter our understandings of God; and that it is the demonic who wants us to maintain the status quo about God -- which will normally be too narrow an understanding of the God whose ways are far beyond our own. I'm also reminded of the book of Acts where it took some mighty miracles of the Holy Spirit to move the Jewish believers in Jerusalem out beyond their own area and beyond their own people.
Carter (Matthew and the Margins) comments on the response in v. 27:
So they answered Jesus, "We do not know." They choose a path of non-commitment, which, ironically, betrays their commitment. To not answer displays not genuine ignorance (their debate in 21:25 shows they know the options) but deliberate resistance. In refusing to say that John's ministry comes from God, they reject the claim that John and Jesus have God-given authority. To refuse this recognition is to reveal their own illegitimacy. Like the Pharisees and their tradition (15:1-9), they are not God's planting (1513-14). They are of human origin. Jesus has now exposed and discredited the whole religious leadership. Judgment on them and their temple is inevitable. [p. 424]
How often is a congregation's inactivity or non-commitment a betrayal of their misplaced commitments?
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