One day, as he was teaching the people in the temple and telling the good news, the chief priests and the scribes came with the elders 2and said to him, ‘Tell us, by what authority are you doing these things? Who is it who gave you this authority?’ 3He answered them, ‘I will also ask you a question, and you tell me: 4Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?’ 5They discussed it with one another, saying, ‘If we say, “From heaven”, he will say, “Why did you not believe him?” 6But if we say, “Of human origin”, all the people will stone us; for they are convinced that John was a prophet.’ 7So they answered that they did not know where it came from. 8Then Jesus said to them, ‘Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.’ - Luke 20:1-8
One of the things I remember most about being a little kid was slipping out of the yard and going "visiting" to one neighbor or another. It drove my mother crazy. One minute I would be playing in the yard, the next minute, I was gone. We lived in a very safe place, one where nobody ever locked their doors and everybody knew everybody else. I don't think I could have really gotten in trouble if I'd tried, but I did get in trouble with Mama.
When I heard her call my first, middle and last names, I knew I'd better hot-foot it for home which usually meant running across the street or from next door. I really wasn't trying to get in trouble; I was just a kid with only a dog and an imaginary playmate or two for company, a mother who needed time to do housework and things, and a need for company and conversation. The way she saw it, though, was that I was disobedient, challenging authority and causing her concern and fear that something had happened to me.
Jesus wasn't running across the street or from next door, but he was challenging authority, or, at least, people who felt they had the authority to call him to heel when it came to teaching, preaching, and passing on the good news. It was a challenge to their authority, and they didn't like that. What they liked even less was that he tossed a ball back to them and they couldn't field it. No matter how they answered it, they would come out the losers.
The whole situation arose around a simple question: "By whose authority?" The chief priests, scribes and elders knew where their authority came from, or thought they did, but here was one whose message and actions seemed to come from nowhere, at least, nowhere that they could discern
concretely. What they couldn't put an immediate finger on made them nervous. That was something that could not be allowed to continue, so they tried every trick they could to catch him out. Needless to say, it didn't work.
Authority never likes to be challenged. Authority is power, and people like to be powerful. Look at the nightly news. There are countless examples in politics, entertainment, sports, and almost every realm of public life where power struggles exist and flourish. Offices, schools, even churches have authority figures and chains of command that keep things running, more or less smoothly. Their authority comes from money, by election or selection, or by hierarchical power. It can come either from inspiration or favoritism. There's where the trouble can begin.
Authority is power granted from one person or group to another. Dictators may seize power, but their power comes from those who follow them. Herod had authority granted him by the Roman government. Such power can be withdrawn in a heartbeat and the formerly powerful can be left as powerless as those over whom he wielded power. Jesus had been granted authority, but from God rather than humans. His was real authority, one that the men questioning him probably wouldn't recognize because it was outside their experience and the source of their own authority.
There are times we all are powerful and times we are powerless. There are times we have authority and then the test is how we use that authority-- for good or for the opposite. Who is our model for good use of the power we have? What can we do for the powerless among us, something that would reflect the lessons we hear and learn from Jesus?
I'm not particularly powerful, even though I know some of the power I do have comes unasked-for and with a load of guilt. I know there have been times I've used it badly, and I hope I've learned from that. Every time I read one of the stories of Jesus, I have to stop and think about how it is reflected in my life -- or should be. I have been given a tiny portion of authority by virtue of my baptism. It's my job to use that power for good, whatever is needed.
I think Jesus expects all of us to do that by using what power we have collectively and individually to work to bring about the kingdom of God on earth.
Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, June 13, 2015.