Year A Proper 21: a problem with authority

Based on today’s New Testament texts: Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32

Let the same mind be in you that is in Christ Jesus.

Here’s a little window into the mind of Jesus; the humble one, the slave, obedient unto death, even death on a cross.

“By whose authority do you do these things?” they asked him, as Jesus strode into the temple, turning tables, teaching, preaching, proclaiming good news and acting it by way of his healing touch. The chief priests and the elders would like to see a little less authority out of Jesus, and a little more of that legendary humility.

The chief priests and the elders have a problem with authority, and it is not related to humility. There is more than one way to abuse authority. We know that the chief priests and the elders, by the end of the week in which this exchange takes place (because yes, we are back here, in Holy Week, after the triumphant procession of Palm Sunday, after the turning of the tables, after the healing miracles, God forbid!)

We know how the chief priests and the elders will overstep their authority by colluding with the forces of oppression to murder the God Incarnate. Men of God committing deicide out of sheer cowardice.

But there is more than one way to abuse one’s authority.

Jesus fixed them with his question: if you want to know about my authority, tell me about yours? What did you do about John?

We know that they heard him – he called them a brood of vipers, and they allowed it. If they had said that they didn’t believe him, they should have denounced him to the crowd, they should have warned them about false prophets.

They, the leaders and teachers of the people, should have done their duty and led, with authority; led the people away from the River and back to the Temple, rejecting the baptism of John. It was their responsibility to lead the people with authority. But instead they stood, and watched, and said nothing.

If they did believe him, they did worse. You remember what happened to John, in the end, imprisoned by Herod, executed, in the end, on a drunken whim. If the chief priests and the elders did believe John, they should have denounced his execution, defended him; they should have used their authority to rally the crowds behind him and rescue him.

They did neither. They abdicated their authority, the authority entrusted to them as religious leaders, as men appointed by God and their community to speak truth to power and to the populace; to pray and to act with authority and with the authenticity of their call and with courage.

Jesus fixed them with his question, and they did not know how to answer him. My guess is they didn’t even know where to look.

“I don’t need to explain my authority to you,” concluded Jesus. “You have enough problems with authority of your own.”

“Let the same mind be in you that is in Christ Jesus. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.”
Jesus’ humility, his love for others, his interest in the interests of others has nothing to do with abdicating his authority or his call to act and speak courageously. On the contrary, putting the interests of others before his own is exactly what got him into trouble.

It’s complicated. In another way, it’s very simple.

We are the chief priests and the elders of our day. Not just those of us with the robes and the ordination certificate – although I will admit to a certain responsibility for the authority I have been granted. But we call ourselves a priesthood of believers, ordained each of us by our baptism to proclaim the gospel in word and deed, to seek and serve Christ in all people, to uphold justice and the dignity of everyone we meet and those we will never encounter – all of us, each of us is ordained by our baptism as a priest to the people around us.

The authority that Jesus has given us as disciples is also our call to put the interests of others ahead of our own – not as an act of abdication but as an act of genuine, authentic service, loving our neighbours as ourselves, each of them and all of them, as a direct result and corollary of our love for God and the love that God has shared with us in Christ Jesus.

It is not a life without conflict, or struggle. When he sent out his disciples to preach the kingdom of God Jesus told them there would be difficulties, even danger. Because there is the authority that the world grants us, and the authority given by God.

The authority that the world grants each of us is arbitrary and unequal. I get a lot of leeway by virtue of my ordination, my education, my age, by being White, and having just the right kind of foreign accent. Others get more around here, perhaps for being male, or American-born; others less, perhaps for having just the wrong kind of foreign accent, or simply for being not White.

When the world treats us unequally, inequitably, when we deny the authority of another to be the author of his or her own life (or at least co-authors, with God), the freedom to write his or her own story in the pages of the book of life that God has given them, then the world reveals its own problems with authority. And we know it. We chief priests and elders know when we hear the truth: that there is a problem in this country, with racial profiling, with violence, with selfish conceit and ambition and a distinct failure of society as a whole to put the needs and interests of anyone ahead of its own. We see it in Ferguson and in Florida and in Beavercreek, Ohio. We have a problem.

So Jesus asks us, how will we exercise our authority, as priests to the people, as elders in our church, commissioned and ordained by our baptism to uphold the dignity, the authenticity, of every human being? Not only here, with our words and worship together, but out in the vineyard, how will we speak for justice? Will we have the courage to seek and serve Christ in all persons, or will we hand him over to the authorities to be crucified?

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who did not see his equality with God as something to be grasped at, but emptied himself in order to stand shoulder to shoulder with us; who humbled himself in obedience to the law of love, loving even to death. His humility was not timid, nor did it compromise his authority to proclaim the Gospel in word and deed. No; it was by putting the interests of others before his own; it was by loving God and his neighbours with the strength of God and the authority to speak truth to power; it was by his fierce faithfulness to the kingdom of God, even to his death and beyond, that this humble man brought the whole world to its knees.

Let the same mind be in you as was in Christ Jesus. Amen.

About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing , and Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence, both from Upper Room Books. She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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