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?”
Before the Gospel reading:
Before hearing the Gospel today it helps to know something of the “backstory.” On Sunday, Jesus and his disciples entered Jerusalem and were greeted by a large crowd shouting “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” It was a welcome fit for a king! Once there Jesus heads right to the temple where the throws out those who had set up shop, buy and selling, and overturns the tables of the money changers and dove merchants while shouting, “It is written, ‘My house will be called a house of prayer, but you are making it a den of robbers.” Then there was room for the blind and crippled to get in and they came to Jesus and he healed them. Added to this commotion children were running and shouting throughout the Temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” It was simply all too much for the religious leaders who asked him, “What’s going on?” and he replied, quoting Psalm 8, “Have you not read, “Out of the mouths of infants and babes, you have prepared praise for yourself”? Then Jesus leaves the city, goes to Bethany, and stays the night, perhaps at the home of his dear friends, Mary, Martha and Lazarus.
Read: Matthew 21: 23-32
By the next morning the chief priests and elders have regrouped and gotten organized. Something has to be done for this supposed Son of David disrupted the economic system of the temple, violated the norms between the unclean and clean, who was acceptable and who was not, and threatened their precarious position with the Romans. Just who does this Jesus think he is? So when he enters the temple on Monday morning the religious leaders ask to see his credentials, “By what authority are you doing these things?”
In traditional rabbinical fashion, Jesus responds to their questions with one of his own: “Was John’s ministry from God, or was he just a strong personality who held sway over the crowds?” Now they are stuck – if they say he was just a charismatic figure and no more, the people who viewed John as a prophet would be incensed. On the other hand, if they said John was sent by God, the people would want to know why they, as religious leaders, had not followed this God-ordained prophet. It’s a classic case of being damned if you do, and damned if you don’t, so they keep their mouths shut. “We do not know,” they whimpered.
Preacher Tom Long says, “Jesus’ question was a sharp scalpel deftly dividing two different forms of authority – human authority and divine authority.” No matter how sophisticatedly it is packaged, human authority is a matter of raw power. I remember being in a heated argument with my mom over a curfew and after I tried to twist it this way and that, her patience ran out and she yelled, “You’ll be home by 11, because I am the MOM!” I was home by 11. It’s the authority of the report card, the annual review, the voting booth, the government, the nations. Human authority is messy, especially in democracies where political parties wrestle for votes, competing interpretations of laws battle in courtrooms and branches of government disagree. It can be brutal, think of abuse and violence, dictatorships and genocide. The religious leaders are working out of their human authority. Worried that any disruption of the balance of power they have negotiated with their Roman overlords, will lead to devastation, they cannot see that the Messiah is standing is right front of them. All they perceive is that Jesus is a threat, to them and to their people.
Divine authority has to do with the truth, the truth of God and 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. One of the places John and I visited on my sabbatical was Leipzig which is a major city in the former East Germany. We visited St. Nicholas Church where in 1979 peace prayer meeting was held every Monday. A small group would come together to light a candle, hear scripture and pray and then each one would go out into the dark holding a lighted candle. Ten years later on October 9, 1989 after a prayer service that filled St. Nicholas, a peaceful demonstration of 70,000 people gathered in the square outside the Church. A march followed that led to the fall of the German Democratic Republic. The head of the military police, the dreaded and feared Stasi, commented: “We were prepared for everything, but not for candles and prayers.” When we were there in June people were still lighting candles and praying prayers. They realize that truth is always being compromised, always threatened, always at risk of being silenced.
What about us and our authority, in this time and place? How do we make our way in a world where truth is relative, fear overwhelms, and we have forgotten how to be with one another? What do we do in this wilderness of hurt feelings, deep misunderstandings and growing animosity? Or to put it more bluntly, how do you sit at the Thanksgiving table and refrain from grabbing the drumstick and walloping your brother-in-law when he launches into a political discussion contrary to your views? Where does your authority come from then?
A recent editorial in the New York Times entitled The Dying Art of Disagreement by Bret Stephen helps, he writes, “To disagree well you must first understand well. You have to read deeply, listen carefully, watch closely. You need to grant your adversary moral respect; give him or her the intellectual benefit of doubt; have sympathy for his or her motives and participate emphatically with his or her line of reasoning. And you need to allow for the possibility that you might yet be persuaded of what he or she has to say.” The letter of James in the New Testament puts it this way: “Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.” (James 1: 19-20)
So how do we do this? In her book Braving the Wilderness social scientist, Brené Brown shared that the Buddhist understanding that strength comes from having a strong back and a soft front. In a little different way, I thought a strong back is knowing that to the core of our beings that we are beloved children of God. Our identity is given to us in our baptism when are marked with the sign of the cross of Christ, forever. Jesus always has our backs. When we are weak, he is strong. When we get lost, he finds us and carries us home. When we lose hope, he bears resurrection. This week when I shared this image at Bible study someone said, “We are constantly backing into the cross.” The cross takes Jesus and us from death into life. There we discover goodness is stronger than evil, love is stronger than hate, that victory is ours through God who loves us. Trusting this we have strong backs.
But there’s more, because there’s also strength in having a soft front. This is daring to be vulnerable which is the birthplace of love, joy, trust, intimacy, courage – everything that brings meaning to our life. As Lutherans this is what it means to be justified by grace through faith alone. We are made right with God as a pure gift and because of that can remove the armor we’ve put up to protect ourselves. As our brave brothers and sisters in AA put it, we can let go and let God. Blessed by grace, we share that amazing gift when we bless others with grace – when we listen deeply and seek understanding, while agreeing and disagreeing with civility.
Cassandra Dahnke and Tomas Spath, the cofounders of the Institute for Civility in Government write, “Civility is claiming and caring for one’s identity, needs, and beliefs without degrading someone else’s in the process…it is about disagreeing without disrespect, seeking common ground as a starting point for dialogue about differences, listening past one’s preconceptions, and teaching others to do the same. It is the hard work of staying present even with those with whom we have deep-rooted and fierce disagreement. Civility is a necessary prerequisite for civic action and involves negotiating interpersonal power such that everyone’s voice is heard, and nobody’s is ignored.” Civility needs people with strong backs and soft fronts to be re-rooted in our society and world. It needs you and me.
In Leipzig on October 9, 1989, St. Nicholas Church was full – they heard the Gospel, prayed, sang and when they marched out of the sanctuary into the darkness their backs were strong. They knew God was with them and they had no idea if the night would bring terrible suffering, bloodshed, even death. They held candles –representing the light of Christ and of peace. It takes two hands to hold a candle — one to hold a candle and the other protect the flame from the wind. You simply cannot hold candle and a weapon at the same time. They had soft fronts. They were vulnerable and invincible! Amen.
Thomas G. Long, Matthew, Louisville: Westminister John Knox Press, 1997, 240-241.
Doris Mundus, Leipzig 1989: A Chronicle, Leipzig: Lehmstedt Verlag, 2009, 25.
Bret Stephens, The Dying Art of Disagreement, www.nytimes.com/2017/09/24/opinion/dying-art-of-disagreement.html?rref=collection%2Fsectioncollection%2Fopinion&action=click&contentCollection=opinion®ion=stream&module=stream_unit&version=latest&contentPlacement=38&pgtype=sectionfront&_r=0
Brené Brown, Braving the Wilderness, New York: Random House, 2017, 153.