Jesus’ Authority and Ours
Mark 11 : 27- 33
Jesus had gone to the Temple area and had upset the tables of money changers and of those selling birds and animals for sacrifice. This was a breach of the peace on any terms and was also a sacrilegious act from the Temple authorities’ point of view. Try to imagine the scene. That huge Temple whose west wall still stands sixty meters high - nearly two hundred feet - and which you see in nearly every TV report from Jerusalem. It is called the Wailing Wall and Orthodox Jews go there to pray and weep for Jews and Judaism. In the time of Jesus there were two cloisters on the east and south of the outside court of the Gentiles. On the east was Solomon’s Porch - an arcade made by 35 feet high Corinthian columns. The south cloister was magnificent. Four rows of 162 white marble columns, 30 feet high and 6 feet in diameter. This was the area that scholars and Rabbis met and taught their classes and schools. It was shaded and sheltered from the elements. Some of our universities are modelled on this design. Glasgow has such a cloister even if it is not so spectacular. The aisles on some of the great English cathedrals are similar too.
This was where Jesus was walking and speaking, healing and teaching when what was probably an official deputation from the Sanhedrin, the Jewish Parliament arrived to question his conduct. The three groups, chief priests, religious lawyers and elders seemed to have treated Jesus with respect initially. They did not summarily arrest Him, for example. They engaged in discussion. Perhaps it is fairer to suggest that they began to interrogate Jesus. But this was done in public and that is probably why their behaviour was circumspect. They asked Jesus two questions. By what authority are you doing these things? And who gave you authority to do this? The implication was, of course, that they knew that Jesus had no authority whatsoever from the Temple people to upset the market tables. It was a kind of 'When did you stop beating your wife' question. But in their exploratory legalistic way, they wanted their position confirmed. No individual had the right to wreck the daily temple business routine. There was a real penetrating cutting edge to these questions. If Jesus said, 'God told me to do it', they would immediately have a case of blasphemy against Jesus. Perhaps that was the answer they expected. Jesus however, was much cleverer and much more subtle than that. If Jesus said 'I just did it' likewise he would put himself in danger of arrest and prosecution.
When you are put on the spot - do you tell the truth? Always? Is it not our human nature to try to wriggle out of an uncomfortable situation. Small children give imaginative responses when challenged for some misdemeanour. A little girl’s father told her not to eat any more chocolate. Sometime later, he found her with her mouth and face covered in chocolate. I told you not to eat any more chocolate he said to her. It fell on me, she replied. A little boy was told by his Mum to go and brush his teeth. Later he was asked 'Did you brush your teeth?' 'Yes' he replied. His mother said, 'If I go and find that the toothbrush is dry that will tell me you did not brush your teeth'. 'Maybe I dried it', said the little boy.
We adults are all guilty of ducking and diving from time to time. There is a wonderful cynical phrase that describes our conduct. Recorded from the 18th century, although rarely used. It was brought into the contemporary language by the UK Cabinet Secretary, Sir Robert Armstrong, who used the phrase during the Australian 'Spycatcher' trial in 1986. Lawyer: 'What is the difference between a misleading impression and a lie?' Armstrong: 'A lie is a straight untruth'. Lawyer: 'What is a misleading impression - a sort of bent untruth?' Armstrong: 'As one person said, it is perhaps being "economical with the truth'. Being economical with the truth is finding an angle which offers a way out of a challenge without fully lying but which does not tell the full truth. Politicians are skilled at being economical with the truth. Seldom do they answer a straight question in a straight way. International diplomacy is all about sophisticated lying and deception. The phone hacking inquiry has shown the same kind of human capacity to slant answers to difficult questions and offer such round about responses that the core issue of the question is lost. In courts throughout the land every day countless positive and unequivocal lies are told as people try to defend themselves against civil or criminal charges.
These are all too human characteristics. But Jesus did not conform to this practice and this is important. We know that it is very hard to survive if you are a thoroughly honest person. In all areas of our living, personal, family, work, society - to be a completely honest person all the time is virtually impossible. The Churches are also full of half truths and false compliments, evasions, cover-ups and denials. It does not do any good. With every half truth there is a loss of authority. Jesus established his credentials by the nature of his response to his inquisitors. He was also well aware of his inquisitors’ malice. He was a match for them any day. He used the legitimate disputation tactic of answering a question by posing another question. With this he put his accusers on the defensive.
'Was John the Baptist’s ministry from heaven or was it just himself talking?' The chief priests, religious lawyers and elders tried to find an answer they agreed upon. We don’t know how long this went on for. In public, however, they behaved reasonably. In Matthew’s Gospel some details of John the Baptist’s ministry are given. People went out to him from Jerusalem and from all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. Confessing their sins they were baptised by him in the River Jordan. But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Saducees coming to where he was baptising he said to them, 'You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?' The text specifically indicates that these people did not confess their sins and were not baptised. It is likely that the people questioning Jesus included some of the same people.
But let’s put this in context. Suppose a fiery Christian evangelist set up a tent up on the football field there and held evening evangelistic meetings calling for people to repent of their sins and be born again as Christians. Would you go along? Would you go just to see what was going on? Would you think for a moment that the evangelist’s challenge actually applied to you? Would you respond? Or would you go away without being affected or changed in any way? You might be sympathetic to the message but may feel no need to apply it to yourself. Or you might just say 'Not my cup of tea - it didn’t do anything for me'.
Those who had heard but not responded to John the Baptist now sought to deal with Jesus who had just wrecked part of the Temple business area. But they could not answer Jesus’ question to them. They realised that Jesus - far from being a simple but extreme preacher - had authority greater than theirs. They could not match him. If they said John the Baptist’s ministry was clearly from heaven. He was a man of integrity and he spoke the truth and sought only to turn people back to the Lord and God of Israel Jesus will then ask us why we did not ourselves take the opportunity to participate in this movement for national repentance. We - leaders of our people and nation - should have led by example - but we did not do so. If they said John had no authority to speak as he did - he was just a rebel, they knew that the people would turn against them because the general consensus was that John the Baptist’s life was transparently devoted to God and he had paid with his life for his honesty and courage. So their answer to Jesus was 'We dinnae ken'. An answer which guaranteed total loss of respect from everyone present.
Jesus then saw them off by saying, 'Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things'. But in fact Jesus had just profoundly demonstrated his authority. He set all his accusers at nought. He slayed them with the sword of his words. These were the cleverest ablest religious disputants in the country and they - all of them - together - had no answers for Him. As it is recorded in Matthew 7:29 after Jesus’ teaching as part of the Sermon on the Mount, the people were amazed at him because he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Scribes were academics who always quoted previous scholars views and opinions. Jesus did not do that. He spoke with his own authority. It was fresh and immediate and cut to the heart of the issues.
Jesus’ authority lay in who he was, in his divine nature, validated by his public ministry and personal conduct and in the discernible presence of God in his compassion, healing and saving of many and in his direct challenge to public inequalities, injustice and corruption. But where does our authority come from today? The authority of the ministry comes from the Church which validates calls to ministry and ordains to ministry. The ministry is authorised from the words of Jesus Himself to go throughout the whole world and preach and baptise and teach in His Name. Living authority comes from personal relationship with the Risen Jesus and from commitment to His purpose.
In the Roman Catholic Church, apostolic authority is held to reside in bishops, archbishops and cardinals and in the Pope. In other churches with bishops such as the Orthodox and Anglican, apostolic authority is held to lie in them. At the Scottish Reformation, it was decided that authority lies where and when the true Gospel is preached because it is the Gospel that carries its own authority. The Reformers added that where the life of the Church was properly ordered and the Sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion correctly administered - the authority of the Church could be found.
Where does your authority as a Christian lie? In your own living faith. In the integrity of your own Christian life. In you personal testimony for Jesus Christ. In your witness and worship. In your Christian lifestyle. In your prayers and knowledge of the Bible, in your giving and in your love and care of others.
The authority of Jesus still reigns for no-one else has risen form the dead. As St Paul found out for himself and wrote down for us 'I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord'.