Reading through Matthew’s gospel as we are from week to week, it has become apparent that the Pharisees and Scribes are playing tag-team with the Chief Priests and Elders in a drawn-out game of hounding Jesus and his followers. This week they are quizzing him for no noble reason about the practice of faith. These folks were the religious and social arbiters of their day, long secure in their positions. Their word became virtually unassailable over time. They were the fastidious keepers and enforcers of the laws and observances regulating faithful and right living. In short, they were accepted as the final authority in matters of religious practice and belief.
The appointed psalm for this Sunday asks of God: Show me your ways, O Lord,
and teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; in you have I trusted all the day long. Remember, O Lord, your compassion and love, for they are from everlasting [Psalm 25:4-6]. This is a prayer which sprang lifted up out of a loving trust in God, not one motivated by cowering fear of a distant, austere deity. Neither was such a prayer anchored in the rigidity and unbending legalism of those religious leaders hounding Jesus. Their authoritarian clout had thoroughly skewed the life of faith into a burdensome task. Psalm 25 was not motivated by a futile desire to “get right with God,” for the psalmist concluded the prayer: You are gracious and upright, O Lord; therefore you teach sinners in your way. You lead the lowly in justice and teach the lowly your way [Psalm 25:8-9]. The psalmist sang of a loving God who …leads me beside still waters; …restores my soul. …leads me in right pathsfor his name’s sake. [God NEVER leaves us to our own feeble schemes.] Jesus, our Good Shepherd, would later echo that gracious psalm in a passage we heard on Sunday, June 11: Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous but sinners [Matthew 9:13].
The chief priests and the elders posed their questions to undermine Jesus’ authority and persuasive embodiment of faithful living. Jesus drew followers and disciples to himself because he demonstrated that following the “paths of God” was not an arduous or arbitrary task. Neither was the God Jesus reveals an arduous or arbitrary taskmaster. The religious leaders were worried because they insisted that the life of faith is lived by slavishly following rules and regulations. They sacrificed “delight in the Law of the Lord” [Psalm 1:1-2] on the altar of correctness at all costs. The God of mercy who is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love was hidden by the Pharisees’, chief priests’, and elders’ woeful misunderstanding of God’s desire for life. That is not a form of religious misunderstanding only of times long gone by. We likely are adept at it, too!
The religious leaders all assumed that they fulfilled their calling by laying down the law, providing “authoritative” decrees on everything from handwashing to the right kind of folks with whom one should associate. Learnéd people, they still did not have a clue how loaded the questions they posed to Jesus actually were: By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority [Matthew 21:23b]? Jesus took no defensive action; he simply tells them that he will ask them several questions as well. If they are able to explain, then he would be glad to provide the answers they seek. The religious leaders were flat out stumped by what he asked. No matter how they answer, they would appear either hopelessly in error or blatantly stupid. (Authorities don’t like to seem like idiots.) So, after a moment of hemming and hawing they plead the Fifth Amendment: “We refuse to answer on the grounds it might incriminate us…”
The derivation of “authority” is a rich and nuanced story of interconnected ideas on how people come to recognize and observe the right and good things to do in this life. Earliest recorded usage suggests that the word is based on passages of writings able to solve and settle arguments or vexing problems in a trustworthy and equitable manner. Those able to set pen to parchment, who wrote in a clear and articulate fashion, were themselves considered “authorities.” At the risk of stating the obvious, these articulate souls were and remain “authors” whose “authority” is proven by their ability to express life’s wisdom in an “authoritative” manner by their speech, their actions, and their writings. [Are you starting to notice a pattern?] Middle English usage further focuses “authority” by defining it as “…power derived from good reputation; power to convince people, capacity for inspiring trust” [Online Etymology Dictionary]. Thus, Jesus becomes known as an “authority” early in his ministry as the Evangelist Luke records: Jesus enters the synagogue in Nazareth, unrolls the scroll of Isaiah, and reads: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor [see Isaiah 61:1-4].” And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. Jesus’ ability to proclaim, explain, and embody God’s will and desire – He IS the incarnate Word, after all – presents him unquestionably as an authority. Would that the leaders had acknowledged that.
After Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, his disciples continue the work of teaching and healing, causing folks also to continue wondering at their authoritative efforts in Christ’s name. Peter, frustrated not by their wonder but at their ongoing disbelief, reminds them: …But you rejected the holy and righteous one and asked to have a murderer given to you, and you killed the author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses [Acts 3:14-15]. Authority extended by another, in this instance Jesus, can so easily be compromised or eroded by careless followers, causing doubts, ridicule, and outright scandal.
Learning to recognize trustworthy authorities in this life is not easy, but Jesus and his disciples provide some help for our discernment. True authorities are not self-aggrandizing, aggressive, demeaning to others, warmongering, or loathe to help the downtrodden, the poor, the outsider and outcast, and the disenfranchised. Religious polemics or rabid partisan politics have no place in the gracious words we hear from Jesus. Neither should they be part of our own thoughts and speech. What we express in daily conversation and social media, what we pray in the “secret of our hearts,” how we vote, and what we say that we believe demonstrates whether we’ve paid attention to the Lord of love or not. Authority that does good is not achieved by bullies or those who are dismissive of and belittle others. This is why Jesus left us with the words of the Prophet Hosea on Sunday, June 11. They remain authoritative words for us to live by any day of the week: Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’ [Hosea 6:6].