10/01/17 – Authority Figures

Authority Figures

October 1, 2017
Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
Sermon: Exodus17:1-7; Psalm 78;
Philippines 1:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32
Rev. Denise Clark-Jones


Moses found out the hard way that leading is not easy. He told God right from the start he wasn’t leader material. God conceded that point but promised he would be with him – even put words in his brother Aaron’s mouth when Moses’ speech impediment got in his way. God bucked him up whenever Moses felt insecure about asserting the authority God had given him to lead his people. God needed Moses to trust in God’s power and authority so that he would be able to assert his own authority when the people balked at his instructions. The stakes were too high to chance an insecure leader.

Insecure leaders reveal themselves in several ways. One was is being afraid to take a stand and agreeing with whoever is with them at the moment. Another is being obtusely dictatorial, not listening to any other viewpoint and leading by force or threats. Another failure to accept authority is to be too timid to make any decisions at all. Or, so afraid of appearing weak, an insecure leader will refuse to accept the consequences of his or her wrong decisions and blame others for failure. But, it doesn’t have to be either- or, an insecure leader may alternate between these behaviors or demonstrate all of them at varying times.  The result brings chaos, reduces productivity and effectiveness of those being led, fractures relationships within the group and leads to a chain of failures and negative outcomes.

In our reading from Exodus, Moses once again hits a bump in the road out of Egypt heading toward the Promised Land. The people are thirsty and complain about Moses’ leadership. He has led them out into the desert with no water to drink. Moses is no miracle worker, so he looks to God for an answer. God realizes Moses needs to be given some authority, at least by association, so he creates a scenario whereby the elders witness Moses getting water from a stone. Once again, a crisis in Moses’ leadership is averted.

The Apostle Paul, still writing from prison, has heard of dissent in the church at Philippi that is threatening the church’s purpose for being. In chapter 4 Paul names two women in the church who are arguing with one another about some issue. Perhaps, they are the leaders of two opposing groups arguing an issue of theology or worship practice. Maybe the disagreement is about what to serve at the congregational meal after worship – we don’t know. We know from Paul’s letters to different churches that there were disagreements that threatened the unity within the individual churches as well as the unity of all the churches. Paul had tried to delegate as much as he could so he could go out and evangelize to people who had not yet heard about Christ, but disputes still arose. Not much has changed, has it?

Paul’s solution to the problem was for all Christ-followers to submit themselves to the authority of Christ, who led by example. Jesus had shown what being faithful to God and serving one another looked like. Paul gave this congregation a pep talk. ‘You have been doing a good job, keep following Christ’s lead and all will be well.’ He quoted a hymn the congregation knew. This is the epistle passage that we read every Palm Sunday and sometimes use as our “Affirmation of Faith.” In the entire passage, we read today Paul’s message is ‘think and act like Christ. Love one another, do not disturb the peace and unity of the church with petty quarrels. Submit to the authority of Christ and only the authority of Christ. Don’t focus on what the church can do for you, but what you can do for the church of Jesus Christ.’

Just as Moses needed God’s assurance, Paul knew the churches needed his assurances to encourage them to lead themselves in serving others. Paul was demonstrating Christ’s leadership model. It must have worked, because we are still here, even though the Church has sure seen many disputes throughout its history!

What would Paul’s instructions to the Philippian Church look like for us? Do we treat our church as though we were a consumer or a servant? How good are we at showing up to greet our guests with hospitality and an invitation to join us for worship? Or, showing up for church events dedicated church members work hard to put on so as to provide opportunities to get the people outside the church to come inside? Or do we pick and choose when we show up according to our own interests? It has been said: “Ninety-five percent of being a faithful Christian is showing up.”

In our gospel passage for today, Jesus tells the religious leaders who oppose him a parable about the value of showing up. The parable sends the message that the veneer of our faith can be easily stripped away when we are asked to act in God’s interest instead of our own.

In today’s reading, the confrontation started with a simple challenge of authority. First, it was the religious leaders who challenged Jesus’ authority. Their concern was, of course, the threat to their own power and authority over their own faith community. The chief priests and the elders were representatives of the Sanhedrin, the governing body of the Jewish community in Jerusalem. Jesus had just recently marched into town triumphantly with crowds of people proclaiming him King of the Jews. He had thrown the money-changers out of the temple like he owned the place, all the while quoting from the prophets and alluding to the future destruction of the temple. He had even cursed a fig tree and caused it to die!

The timing could not have been worse. It was the week of the Passover celebration. Jews from all over the Mediterranean region came as pilgrims to the temple in Jerusalem — that made the Roman authorities very nervous! In order to keep their power and authority in the Jewish community, the priests and the elders had to show the Roman authorities they weren’t a threat to them. As long as the Jewish population paid their taxes and didn’t do anything that gave the appearance of political power, the priests and elders could be the big fish in their little pond. Jesus acting in an authoritative manner was not a welcome interruption to the status quo.

Now, the old-fashioned way of settling philosophical and theological differences is to debate. In the fine oratory tradition of the Greeks and the Romans, the priests were well-versed in the art of debate. That was before debates became media circuses with orchestrated performances and dueling sound-bytes. Back in the day, the winner was the one who asked the most challenging questions and could stump his opponent.

‘What are your credentials?’ The priests and elders demanded. In the typical style of a rabbi, Jesus answered them with a question: ‘I’ll answer yours if you’ll answer mine, first.’ It was the old check-checkmate strategy. The priests and the elders were being set up. Jesus asked:

“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?’  21:26 But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” (21:25) You see, John the Baptist preached that sins would be forgiven by baptism.

If John’s authority came from God, then the temple was out of business selling forgiveness with the purchase of animals for sacrifice on the temple altar. If the priests and the elders answered that John’s authority did not come from God, then they were saying to the crowd that they did not believe John was a prophet. Rather than have their own power and authority diminished, they responded to Jesus: “We do not know.” It would be like saying “no comment” or “I don’t recall” when cornered today. It was a lose-lose situation. The priests and elders lost authority in the eyes of the people for not having the ability or the confidence to answer a religious question.

Then Jesus throws the second punch with a parable that also asks a question. The question of authority also becomes a question of obedience.

  “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.”’ (21:27)

In other words, ‘if you can’t figure it out from what you have seen, nothing I say will convince you.’

It seems obvious that the son who did what his father asked him to do, even though he had at first refused, was the one who did the will of God. Even though he didn’t talk the talk, he walked the walk. He recognized his disobedience and repented. The second son talked the talk but didn’t walk the walk. He honored his father with words of deference to his father’s authority, yet was too consumed with his own self-interest to make time to actually do the work. It’s like church members who talk about what needs to be done but aren’t around when it’s time to do them or even to provide money to support the work done by others.

Jesus told the chief priests and the elders that the outsiders, the prostitutes and the tax collectors who had repented and professed their faith, would enter the kingdom of God before them. The grace is in Jesus’ words “you will enter.”  God of all power and authority is also the God of grace.

Walking and talking our faith is bound to our acceptance of Christ’s authority above our own or any other worldly authority. If all Christians did this, as we pledge in baptism, World Communion Sunday would truly celebrate our unity instead of the hope for unity. And, I also can’t help but believe the world would be a lot more peaceful and just place in which to live.  That is what God has revealed to us in Scripture and in the Word-made-flesh Jesus Christ. That’s the authority we need to obey!

All power, honor, and glory to our Triune God.


© Rev. Denise Clark-Jones, 2017, All Rights Reserved
Westminster Presbyterian Church – Peoria, Illinois