September 2020

By What Authority Do You Live and Act?

17th Sunday After Pentecost, September 27, 2020
Matthew 21:23-32

– The Reverend Dr. Arnold Isidore Thomas –

The priest and elders with whom Jesus contended were religious leaders whose influence was limited by the provisions the Roman empire allowed. In other words, they, like faith leaders of our day and age, were cautioned not to get too political if they wanted to maintain their protected status within the government. And the rewards for their compliance were provisions of money, property and prestige that ranked them among the wealthy elites, who were the frequent targets of Jesus’ attacks.

Christ exposed them for what they really were – charlatans pretending to speak for the people while actually manipulating the truth to maintain their semblance of respectability. Jesus had entered their temple and, in a fit of rage, lashed out at money changers and merchants who sold animals to those who couldn’t bring animals to offer as sacrifices. His anger was not at the buyers or sellers, but the chief priests who, according to the Jewish historian Josephus, were extorting the profits for themselves (Antiquities XX 8.8, 9.2). This is why Jesus said, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you have turned it into a den of thieves” (Matthew 21:13).

Jesus was a threat to these corrupt religious leaders, so naturally, they sought to get rid of him by coaxing him into saying things that would make him look blasphemous in the eyes of the people. So, they asked him, “By what authority do you do these things?” (Matthew 21:23)

They had hoped to prove that since he had not come through the respectable channels and pedigree that normally qualified one for religious authority, the people would denounce him as a fake. However, John the Baptist, who Jesus followed after, also did not come through these formal channels, yet the people regarded him as a prophet from God.

Sensing these clerics were trying to trap him, Jesus turned their scheme back upon themselves by responding to their question with another question, “The baptism of John, did it come from God or mortals?” (Matthew 21:25)

Jesus essentially trapped them with their own trap. Whatever answer they gave regarding this popular prophet would implicate them in the eyes of the people. “We don’t know,” they said. (Matthew 21:27)

But this we do know: authority in the eyes of God is a trust not entitled but earned from the people. If we as a church and people of God advocate and strive for a realm in which all people, regardless of their race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, mental or physical ability, financial situation or national origin, are treated with the respect and dignity deserving a child of God, then nothing should stand in our way in preventing that realm from being realized.

This is where I must challenge you, especially during this election year, to overcome the notion that the church cannot be political, for God’s agenda requires political action that rises above the compromising and corrupt political maneuverings that say one thing and does another.

Godly politics are campaigns that boldly speak by the authority of God’s Spirit to empower the poor, release the captives, restore sight to the blind, and free the oppressed.

As our Church Council considers the church as a whole, I ask you to consider how the sense of justice and caring we share with one another may be proclaimed and pursued beyond our walls through signs and banners, but more so, through action that relieves the countless sufferings of our divided world.

As a faith community, we must reclaim the understanding of politics from its Greek origin as polites meaning citizen, or polis meaning city; for from a spiritual sense of divine commissioning and authority, we strive to create a metropolis of God where agrarian and urban cultures complement each other, where no one is in need; and where what we seek for ourselves, we seek for all.

By what authority do we as children of God live and act? Let us lean into the challenge of discerning God’s authority among us. Amen.