Pentecost 17A What Does Authority Look Like?

The Gospel for the 17 Sunday after Pentecost is Matthew 21:23-32

“By what authority do you do these things, Jesus?”


Behind the current battle about “fake news,” and whom to believe—scientists or politicians, is an existential question about the nature of true authority.

There is a great difference between authority and authoritarianism. Matthew tells us about a confrontation between Jesus, on the one hand, who has no official credentials, and the chief priests and elders—who have them in abundance, and officially, by definition, have all the authoritiy.

But when they challenge Jesus about his authority to teach in the sacred Temple, Jesus, in turn, confronts them with a question which challenges this notion—which challenges whether they are exercising true authority or only the counterfeit version: authoritarianism.

Jesus asks about their reaction to John the Baptist. John was the one calling people to repentance—that is, to change their minds and their hearts. John called people to be honest with their limitations, their mistakes, and the ways they act against the loving and just purposes of God.

The chief priests and elders were stuck. They had turned a cold shoulder to John. As they had collaborated with King Herod who slaughtered the innocents in Bethlehem trying to rid himself of a rival, so they had looked the other way when Herod’s son, Herod Antipas had John the Baptist beheaded.

So, if they admitted that John’s baptism of repentance was a call from heaven, Jesus would surely have come back with, “Well, why then did you not heed that call?”

If, on the other hand, they said his baptism had no “authority” but was merely human, the masses of the people, who regarded John as a prophet from God, would  turn against them.

So, when these authority figures refuse to answer, Jesus turns the screws ever more tightly upon them with the parable of two sons. One son does not give lip service to his father, but thinks better of it and finally does the father’s will. The other gives only lip service. He says “yes, I go,” but he does not go.

Jesus’ parable shows us the difference between authoritarianism and authority. And it is a difference that even “the tax collectors and prostitutes” recognize. They know their own sins, and they know they need to repent. So they understand their own urgent need for John’s baptism of repentance. They know it is from God in heaven.

Meanwhile, the chief priests and elders have forfeited their true authority because they would not repent. Even after they saw the power of John’s authentic call to repentance, they did not change their minds—or repent. Even when, in the context of the parable, they were forced to admit that true obedience and true authority requires repentance, they could not do it. After still another stinging parable, they realize Jesus is talking about their own hypocrisies, but, instead of repenting they just want to shut him up.

We know this is a time of crisis. The Greek language gives us the word, crisis, and for them it means the time of judgment. It is a time when our true colors will come out. Today we are being judged about whether we stand with authority or authoritarianism. We have to decide whom we choose to believe about masks or vaccines, or whether there truly is a persistence of racism in or country, or who should name the next Supreme Court justice. And in all of these decisions we absolutely must discern who has true authority and who is simply exercising authoritarianism, or an abuse of power.

In the 1995 movie “Dead Man Walking,” the killer who is about to be executed confesses his crime for the first time to Sister Helen Prejean and says that he is just a yellow dog. In a song for that movie composed by Tom Waits, he sings, “Even a yellow dog knows when he has sinned. You want to walk away and start over again.”

The tax collectors and prostitutes are like the yellow dogs. But even they can tell the difference. Authoritarians never admit their mistakes or their sins, and so they can’t learn from their mistakes, walk away and start over. They can’t accept that they too are sinners. On the other hand, those with true authority are the ones who care more for the truth, and justice, and other people than they do for preserving their own image. Whether they are billionaires, senators, Presidents, or “scientists,” or doctors–none of that matters as much as this one thing: True authorities would rather do good than look good.

Now is the time for all of us to discern and exercise true authority. We are being judged right now.



About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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