Phil 2:5-11 | Matthew 21:23-32
And so we start to move towards the climax of Matthew’s gospel; the final week of Jesus’ life, a week, in Matthew’s telling, shaped by the growing conflict between Jesus and his followers, and the two main groups holding religious power in his day, the Pharisees and Sadducees.
Chapter 21 began with the story of the triumphal entry, which threw the city into turmoil; and is immediately followed by the cleansing of the temple, the throwing out of the money changers and merchants who had set up business meeting the needs of the faithful who came to offer sacrifices, as commanded in the law of Moses.
In doing so, Jesus has set himself unambiguously against the authority of the Priests, the ones who were the arbiters of what was and was not appropriate within the grounds of the temple, how things should be set up in order to follow God’s rules.
As so the next day, when Jesus returns to the Temple, they are waiting to challenge him with a deceptively simple question: “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”
And when we read this passage, I think we tend to look at this as if it were essentially a trick question, trying to trap him into blasphemy. And perhaps there was some of that, but the question they ask him really goes to the heart of the conflict between Jesus and the representatives of the Temple.
For they knew where their authority came from. The tradition of the elders had been passed down to them. The priests had been appointed as the spiritual leaders of the people – appointed by God. And they had secular authority as well; by this point the high priesthood of the temple was de facto in the gift of the Rome – before Caiphas, three high priests had been appointed and removed by the governor in quick succession – but he had managed to hold the role for 15 years by the time of Jesus – Caiphas was no fool.
So more than a trick question, this is an attempt to move the debate onto ground where they feel they are strong. The priests believe that if the argument comes to ‘who has the authority to make decisions around here?’, they will be onto a winner.
And Jesus’ response – well, again, we often seem to read it just as a clever bit of debating, avoiding a difficult question by turning it around.. But I believe there is a much more real message in the way he answers. So let’s take a look at his words: “what was the source of John’s baptism?”
We’ve seen several times before in Matthew’s gospel the closeness of the link made between Jesus and his cousin John; and here again, Jesus uses John as his argument.
John, you’ll remember, was a bit of a character – locusts, wild honey, camel’s hair. He was a figure very much on the fringes of society – though his father, Zechariah, had been a priest, John had taken instead the path of the wild prophet.
And the thing about prophets, is that they existed outside of the usual systems of power; they were neither priests nor kings, they were afforded authority only by the moral strength of their words, by the sense that they were speaking for God.
The story of the people of Israel – from the time of the judges to the exile and beyond – was a story in which over and again the people had gone wrong, and the prophets had been sent by God to set them right. They almost always came from nowhere, from the outside, and while sometimes they spoke to challenge the people, just as often – more often – their words were directed against those in power.
Nathan challenged David, the king, calling him to account over his adultery with Bathsheba and his murder of Uriah.
Samuel condemned the line of Eli, the priest, denouncing his sons as scoundrels with no regard for God.
Jeremiah spoke against priest and king alike.
Deeply embedded in the Jewish cultural psyche, in the story of the people, was this image: the outsider, speaking with an authority which came directly from God. Challenging the power of state and Temple.
So when Jesus challenges the priests with his question about John the Baptist’s authority, yes, he’s playing a rhetorical game, but it’s a game with a real question behind it: “You ask me where my authority comes from? Well, what is the true source of authority? Do you remember your story?”
And the priests cannot answer. Because the answer they need to give is that their authority comes from the system, from the power and wealth and richness of the tradition that the Temple represents, from the religious system that it codifies, that lies at the heart of the people, and that the Priesthood serves.
But by mentioning John, Jesus has reminded all those who hear that in the story of the people of God, the centre does not have the final voice. Power, and the structures of power, of institution, of tradition, do not have ultimate authority.
And then Jesus asks another question. He tells the story of the two sons, and asks “which of these did the will of his father?”
Now sometimes it seems as if we need to really dig into the culture and practices of the day to really get Jesus’ parables, to understand the symbolism and meaning of the story in the context of its day. But here we have a story which translates pretty well across cultures, a story whose deep meaning is found right there on the surface. “Who does the will of the Father?”, he asks, “the one who said the right thing, who offered his obedience by outward show, or the one who rejected the command, but later changed his mind, and without show or ceremony went and got on with the work?”
Now an outside observer, in the house when the father went to send his sons to work would have seen an immediately recognisable scene: an obedient son, immediately agreeing to do what he was told, and a surly, resistant, son, rejecting his Father’s command. And such an observer, going by the words spoken and the outward show of obedience, if asked who the true son was, would clearly have chosen the one who said the right words.
And would have been entirely wrong. For as the story unfolds, all would agree that it is the one who starts in the wrong, but changes his mind – repents – that is the true son – not the one who knows the right words, makes the right show.
And then once again, Jesus returns to the authority of the prophet: not himself, but John, the outsider who spoke with the voice of God:
the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax-collectors and the prostitutes believed him
The tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of the religious elite: not because they are better, for they aren’t, but because they recognised the authority of God in the voice of the prophet.
And here, in the end, is Jesus’ claim for the authority of his own words; his answer to the question that began our reading; not “you must do what I say because of who I am”, but “listen to me, because if you do you will hear the words of God”.
though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
Though he was God, he did not choose to exert his authority from a position of power, but stepped down, down to the form of a servant, a slave, an outsider; down to a place where no one would feel compelled by his title or status to listen or obey; so that the power of his words would come not from people having to listen because of who he was, but people choosing to listen because of what they heard.
And I guess it leaves us wondering: where do we hear that voice today?
We who are, like it or not, part of the institution; part of the religious institution by virtue of our presence here – especially those of us for whom it’s our day job – and part of the social establishment by geography, by social standing, by education, by employment.
Where do we hear the voice that speaks from the outside of power, the voice of the prophet challenging the system, asking difficult questions, confronting the deep systemic injustices in society that we take for granted or don’t even notice?
Who are the people – within or beyond the Church – who speak to us, and we find ourselves listening because when we hear them speak, the words burn into us with an authority that pays no attention to status or education, title or position?
Who speaks to you in the voice of the prophet?