Texts: Psalm 78: 1-8; Matthew 21: 23-32
How often have we internally cringed at that ultimate symbol of state authority when encountered: the traffic cop. In those cases we usually know we've done something wrong, whether it was trying to beat the light or turning right on red without coming to a complete stop. Authority. We yield it to some, give to certain people a cloak of legitimacy, and yet from others we withhold it. How do we make our decisions about authority and who has the power to wield it?
The word “authority” has an almost stagnant quality to it, but authority itself is not a “thing” but a process, a process of interpreting power whether it is the cop who stops you on the road or Members of Congress bickering over the process of paying for disaster relief. Let's examine the categories of authority. First, there is traditional authority, based on an established belief in traditions or customs, held from time immemorial, such as Jewish dietary practices, for instance. The second category is the legal-rational based upon the belief of the legality of rules and the rights of those who occupy positions by virtue of those rules, such as kings – or cops. We can call the final category charismatic; examples here range from Jesus of Nazareth to the swindling televangelists who claim to speak in his name.
Authority in our minds is connected to legitimacy. We endow legitimacy to those we give authority; in doing so, we create a social bond, one in which dependence and transgression become inseparable. As human beings, we need authority and at the same time we rebel from it. That is the case whether we believe the authority is legitimate or not. Calling authority illegitimate gives us the intellectual rationale not to behave as we are expected, to deviate from its demands whether those demands are political, artistic, or intellectual.
In this morning's reading the Psalmist utilizes a combination of traditional and legal-rational authority to remind the people of their obligations under the covenant and calls on them to transmit their teachings to future generations. In some ways, that is what we have done through the process we call confirmation. Earlier today we called on our traditional sources of authority through liturgy and ritual to transmit our religious heritage to the next generation.
In the second reading this morning, however, we see Jesus turning the idea of authority on its head by asking those who questioned him a question that put his questioners in a bit of a pickle, to say the least. “By what authority are you doing these things,” Jesus is asked. What things are they talking about? Healing, teaching, and, even more importantly, challenging the corrupt temple establishment of his day. If Jesus had only been some mealy mouthed miracle worker, he would not have been a threat. But Jesus in his words and deeds challenged the traditions and authorities of his day.
Because of the way the Lectionary – the choice of Scripture for the day – is broken up into small pieces, we need to be reminded of the context of the Gospel stories we hear. This passage describes an encounter with the temple leadership on Palm Sunday. Jesus has just entered Jerusalem and driven the money changers out of the temple. He has challenged the authority – the legitimacy, if you will, of the temple leadership. One could compare it to the challenge that the colonists made against the monarchy in our own history; that kind of challenge had never been made before. “By what authority” was both a logical and a legitimate question.
We learn by asking questions, questions that enable us to make decisions. Very few of us just accept something because someone else said it. Most of us consider ourselves thoughtful, if not intelligent, human beings, capable of making decisions once the facts are laid out before us. As the purveyors, if you will, of traditional authority of which they considered themselves the arbiters, the temple leadership was understandably upset when challenged. Like our own American Revolution, it had never been done before. Prophets may have called leaders corrupt, but Jesus challenged their legitimacy. Their response was, as Tim Rice put it so well in Superstar, “this Jesus, this Jesus, this Jesus must die.”
Jesus serves as a model of questioning authority, of encouraging us to think things through and to make decisions about how we will live in the world; that process includes examining claims made by those who want us to accept their authority. Questioning authority, however, has consequences. Jesus himself knew what those consequences entailed. They were brutal for him as they have been for others who have challenged authority through their questioning. Tycho Brahe, Michael Servetus, and Galileo were but three who faced the consequences of their challenges.
The process of confirmation is one that teaches a young person to ask questions and, hopefully, to realize that sometimes there are no “answers” in the traditional sense of the word. There may be direction, guidance, or counsel, but we adults know that apart from certain limited realms, we really do not have “answers” to the ultimate questions of life. What we have is the example of the One we follow, Jesus of Nazareth, who pushed the boundaries of class, race, gender, and, yes, belief. He spoke to the marginalized, he opened himself to the alien Samaritan, he was direct with women, and, yes, at times, he questioned the purpose of his life and actions. We normally don't think that about Jesus, but that's what he did. In that way, he was a perfect model for the process known as confirmation.
In the months that I have been with our confirm and Georgia, I have seen her grow and develop as a young woman who is not afraid to ask questions and to push the boundaries. As a community of faith, we should not be afraid of questions of any kind, even when they reach what we consider the heart of our faith, the core of our beliefs. Questioning is part and parcel of growing in faith; unless we question, we cannot make decisions about our lives. Jesus is our model here. He is the One who sets the standard. We only need to try to follow it.
Let us pray: Creator of our minds that cause us to question, help us not to shrink from pushing all the boundaries of faith so that we may ultimately grow to be more faithful to our model, even Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.