By what authority?

This is the sermon I preached today (11th October, 2020) at Putney Methodist Church. The readings were Philippians 2:1-13 and Matthew 21:23-32.


Today, we are going to reflect on an ancient question with very modern implications: ‘By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?’ (Matt. 21:23). This is the question that is posed by Jesus’ opponents in our gospel reading today, and a challenge that he faced in various forms throughout his ministry. As we shall hear, Jesus responds to this question in typical fashion: he poses a question to those questioning him (one he knows they will struggle to answer) and tells a parable. We shall reflect on the continuing challenge and implication of his answer shortly.

Before that, though, we’re going to hear from Paul’s letter to the first Christians in Philippi. There, probably quoting one of the oldest church hymns or creeds, the apostle speaks of the example of Christ and calls his followers to imitate his humility.

Philippians 2: 1-13 (Imitating Christ’s Humility)

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, 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.

And being found in human form, he humbled himself

   and became obedient to the point of death—

   even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name

   that is above every name,

so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend,

   in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

and every tongue should confess

   that Jesus Christ is Lord,

   to the glory of God the Father.

Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

Matthew 21: 23-32 (The Authority of Jesus Questioned)

When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, ‘By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?’ Jesus said to them, ‘I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?’ And they argued with one another, ‘If we say, “From heaven”, he will say to us, “Why then did you not believe him?” But if we say, “Of human origin”, we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.’ So they answered Jesus, ‘We do not know.’ And he said to them, ‘Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.

‘What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, “Son, go and work in the vineyard today.” He answered, “I will not”; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, “I go, sir”; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?’ They said, ‘The first.’ Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, 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; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.


May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts, be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

“By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” This exchange between Jesus and his opponents in Jerusalem was clearly a significant encounter that stuck in his disciples mind, as we find it in all three of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke). It was a very pointed conversation and, on Jesus’ part, a very clever response – the sort of ingenious put-down that many contemporary politicians would long to be able to make! Jesus turns the tables on his accusers and asks them a question about John the Baptist that he knows they will be unable to answer.

That question of authority was one that dogged Jesus during his ministry, and ‘authority’ is a word that recurs throughout the gospels. Who had given him the authority to command “even the unclean spirits” (Mark 1:27)? How was he able to speak “as one having authority” – much more so than respected rabbis – as his early audiences noted (Matt. 7:29)? And how on earth could he claim to have authority even to forgive sins (Luke 5:24), the prerogative of God? He could claim no earthly power or wealth, in fact quite the opposite. Instead, his authority stemmed in part from his personal presence and authoritative manner, which shows itself even in the written record of his preaching 2,000 years later. It is a oft-noted feature of the gospels that Jesus does not speak like other contemporary rabbis, citing precedent and detailed argument, but rather simply stating how things are: “Truly, truly, I say unto you…”.

More importantly, though, what contemporaries recognised in Jesus was the authority of God. One who spoke not only on behalf of God, like a prophet, but actually as God. One who challenged the authorities of his own day, exposing their failings and arrogance, as in the passage today. One who possessed authority over life and death itself, and over whom even the emperor’s representative himself was ultimately powerless. Pontius Pilate asks a beaten and bleeding Jesus, “Do you refuse to speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?” But Jesus responds, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above”, and is proved right, of course, three days later. (John 19:10).

This ancient question of authority has continued to resonate throughout history, right up to this very day. Currently, we have all lost a great deal of our own personal authority. Our ability to decide what to do, and how and when we do it, has been severely curtailed by the COVID pandemic. I think that very few of us could have imagined at the start of the year that we would have lost the power to meet in groups of more than six people, go to a pub after 10:00 pm or hop on a bus without wearing a face mask. The authority of the state to control our lives has become only too evident.

Inevitably perhaps, this exercise of authority has provoked a considerable backlash in many places, with people challenging the rules around the pandemic. They argue that governments have no authority to deny them what they perceive to be their fundamental liberties and rights. ‘By what authority are you doing these things’, they cry!

At the same time, we have politicians across the world vying with one another to exercise authority as leaders. Nowhere is this perhaps more apparent than in the USA with, I’m afraid, the somewhat unedifying spectacle of the presidential election. Both sides in the debate accuse each other of being unfit to exercise authority, of being too weak, too indecisive, too over-bearing, too incompetent, and so on and so forth! ‘By what authority do you speak?’, each side can shout, claiming for themselves the role of true representatives of the authority of the people. And, of course, we see the same spectacle in our own House of Commons most weeks, and in every corner of the globe.

This week too we saw the chilling effects of the misuse of authority, with the publication of the Church of England’s long-awaited safeguarding report. Like our own church’s report a few years back it makes for very depressing and distressing reading. It lays bare how the power of those who were meant to represent Christ was repeatedly misused to abuse the powerless. And how those in positions of authority repeatedly refused to listen to, or act for, those who cried out for help and justice.

In my own life, I have been reflecting this week on where my sudden authority over my newly-adopted son comes from. This has largely been because it has been repeatedly challenged this week! “Please sit nicely at the table.” “Why?” “Out of the bath now, please.” “No!” “Come here now,” “I don’t want to.” At such times, I think all parents may reflect upon where their actual authority stems from. Is it just because I am bigger and older than the child, or have a legal responsibility for them, or is it something much deeper?

All of these situations, and many more, may cause us to ask where true authority really comes from, and who has the right to wield it. The answer to this question comes from our reading from Philippians and the second half of our gospel reading. In the latter, Christ employs a very simple and easily understandable parable. Two sons: one seemingly unwilling, the other seemingly willing. Who is actually doing what is asked of him, though? The first, both Jesus and his opponents agree, because he actually did what was needful and obeyed his father. In crude terms, you can’t just talk, the talk, Jesus says, you must walk the walk as well. You must actually do the right thing, not just say you are.

This is brought out even further in the wonderfully poetic language of our reading from Philippians. There, the apostle Paul spells out that Jesus never exercised his authority for his own benefit or desire. He did “nothing from selfish ambition or conceit”. Rather, he “emptied himself” and “humbled himself … and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross”. As we saw in our reading from Matthew today, and elsewhere in the gospels, Jesus unashamedly exercised authority over others. Yet, he never sought this power for the sake of the power itself. He held authority because he did the will of God and wished to save God’s world.

The call – and the warning – from scripture is clear. All authority ultimately comes from God. This authority must never be exercised arbitrarily or selfishly but always to serve the will of God, who wills what is good for all creation. This is true of all forms of authority – be it political, economic, military, parental, or any other form. It must first and foremost be moral authority based on truth, justice and righteousness. And if it denies or neglects any of these, then it is not real authority. It cannot claim to be ‘of God’ and it does not merit our obedience.

So, if parents claim authority over their children solely by their ability to intimidate and over-power them, then it is no true authority. If politicians claim authority based on lies, deception and manipulation, then it is no true authority. If those setting the rules around COVID do not lead by example and in the best interests of all, then it is no true authority.

As Christians, the answer to the question, “By what authority are you doing these things?” must always be grounded in the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. It must always be an authority modelled upon the highest of moral standards, upon self-sacrifice and a willingness to put the interests of others before your own. It must always be an authority that follows the example of Christ, before whom ultimately every knee shall bend, as Paul writes. As we exercise our own authority and as we engage with the authorities of this world, let us seek to reflect that model and to hold Christ’s example ever before our eyes. Amen.

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