Luke 20:1-8 “Whose Authority?””
“I will take responsibility,” “The buck stops with me,” “I am the one you need to speak to on that issue,” so when was the last time you actually heard someone say these words? It is very hard to find the responsible party in any situation today! This has almost become the curse of modern America.
This issue came up this last Tuesday again when a homeless person with whom we have had multiple run-ins came through the cemetery, turning every faucet on, turned over chairs and plants, left two full garbage bags of personal items spread out on the lawn. About an hour later she came through again, doing the same thing. Then, for a third time she did this. Usually we just put things back as they were and go on with life until the next time. This time, I decided, no, it is time to call the authorities. I dialed 911.
Did you note how I phrased that? “I called the authorities.” Maybe I called the authorities but only the local police squad car showed up. Soon I was told that the police can do nothing because it is up to the prosecuting attorney’s office to make sure this menace is prosecuted. Apparently there are multiple arrest warrants already for her, but what does that matter if when she goes to court nothing happens.
So, I called the prosecuting attorney’s office about this particular homeless person. The person I spoke to did not seem to understand the situation, so I was “escalated” to the office of our elected prosecuting attorney. There I was told that I should call the police. I protested stating that the police had told me to call the prosecuting attorney’s office–that the police could not do anything.
How many of you have had this same thing happen in which you ask for the person in charge but instead end up on a merry-go-round. You just end up going around in circles. Your head starts to spin, and you feel nauseous. We are worn down, and down further, as we come to the grim realization that nobody can do anything at all.
This story relates back to our scripture for today as such in that we see Jesus is in the Temple in Jerusalem. He is the God incarnate. He is the final authority over all. We see that he is teaching “the good news,” that is that there is resurrection and life eternal with God. He is teaching this despite the fact that he himself has yet to be resurrected. Yet, that is why Jesus came to earth—to share this good news with us. That is his authorization.
The scribes, priests, and elders are all there listening to Jesus tell of the good news of salvation and eternal life. Why don’t they believe what he is saying? Why do they not just assume that he is telling the authority over them? They are on the merry-go-round. They themselves have no authority. They are just spinning. And, there is Jesus with all of the authority of heaven and earth.
We need to go back a little in the story of Jesus to make sure we understand the full picture of what is happening in this moment there in the temple in Jerusalem. The officials who are now confronting Jesus have a clever little secret among themselves. They have been spying on Jesus all along. In fact, they had been spying on John the Baptist even before Jesus. We see that in Luke 3:18 King Herod decided that John the Baptist should be shut up for good because John the Baptist was telling of this “good news” even before Jesus.
When we then read then in the next verse (verse 21) how the voice came down from heaven and said about Jesus “You are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased!” those scribes and priests were there taking notes. They already know for sure by what power Jesus is saying what he is saying. They know that Jesus is the Son of God as they themselves were there to hear God’s voice come down to proclaim Jesus at the time of his baptism. They already know the TRUTH. “They can’t handle the truth!” like the line from the movie.
Despite their apparent inability to process what Truth is, they COMMAND Jesus to tell them by what authority he is speaking. To us the question should come back, “But by what authority are they even addressing the Son of God?” They are already of a mindset not to believe anything that Jesus is saying, why would they ask him by what authority he speaks? The Greek word here is εξουσια, which literally means “power.” You see, they are not interested in Truth, or the good news of Jesus Christ; they are interested in power—their own power.
Jesus is in their Temple now. Jesus has in essence walked into their worship service. The people are supposed to be listening to them—not necessarily to Jesus. Honestly, the people that day most assuredly had come to the Temple to listen to the priests that were always there. Jesus was a bit of a pleasant surprise if you were to ask me. He has surprised the priests. They had their sermons written. They had their rituals worked out. They had advanced their own lives in the priesthood and have gained that kind of implicit power that comes with the priesthood.
This would be as if Jesus were to walk into church this morning, and I were to say to him: “Excuse me, Jesus, I have to finish my sermon first, then you can do your whole salvation of humanity thing thereafter!” Of course, if Jesus were to come into the room right now, I would be the first one to fall silent—at least I pray I would.
The important thing is that the Good News gets told. The important thing is that the world hears the hope of the forgiveness of sin and returning to God. Nothing else matters as much as that. All the priests and elders have their priorities mixed up.
I recall when I was a missionary in Thailand hosting a series of worship services during a teacher training session in Petchburi. Every evening I and other missionaries would share our faith with the mostly non-Christian teachers. One night we decided to share the story of the near-stoning of the adulteress woman (John 8). This is actually kind of the same story as we have today because we see that the scribes and Pharisees bring this woman to Jesus to test what he will do with a sinner caught in the act. We wanted to tell the story of the redemption of sin through forgiveness.
Anyway, we wanted to show the Thai teachers the story, you know, act it out. Yet, nobody wanted to be the adulteress woman. We actually had two women among our group of missionaries, but both refused to be portrayed as the sinful woman, saying that some might actually think it were true of them. Finally one of my colleagues suggested that I should wear a dress and be the adulteress. One of the women thought for sure that I would fit into one of her looser dresses. Before I could really argue against it, she went and got the dress and was holding it up against me to see how I would look.
I remember thinking to myself that I had to get my priorities straight. I had come to Thailand to share the Good News. Who would really care if I had to dress up like a woman to do it? I considered that I might lose some respect, stature, personal pride if I were to publicly don a dress. Then, I thought, for sure the teachers there would never forget the Bible story if I wore the dress. They would make fun of me forever, but they would remember the forgiveness of sin offered by Jesus. The play and ensuing message were a great success. To the day we left Thailand years later, the teachers remembered that scene. Who knows, maybe they are still talking about it. I think I got my priorities straight.
I need to talk about the second part of the scripture from the reading today. The priests and scribes ask Jesus by what authority he speaks—even though they know already. Jesus turns back to them and asks, “By what authority did John the Baptist speak?” In essence, they come to Jesus demanding answers; Jesus points out that they already know the answer. They were there when the voice came down from heaven. They know the TRUTH, but they just cannot speak it! The answer is “by the authority of God in heaven.”
Well, again political expediency takes over. They do not want to look foolish in front of the crowd. They do not want to lose their status. So, they answer Jesus with the best answer they can come up with. They say, “We do not know!”
Jesus responds, “If you do not want to know, then I will not tell you.” In other words, if you want real answers for your life, then Jesus can answer those questions. However, if you retreat to the line “I don’t know,” then Jesus cannot help you.
What a lesson this is for us today! How many in our world today when you ask the question about their faith will respond “I don’t know.” What they are really saying is “I don’t want YOU to know what I believe!” That person is trying to be politically correct in a world that says “believing in anything” can get you into trouble, and especially if it is the TRUTH with a capital “T.”
Here is our challenge for this morning from scripture: Let us find out what we really believe! Because, WE WANT ANSWERS! We should not accept the typical shrug of the shoulders and “I don’t know” anymore.
Our exchange student, Nelli, from Russia told me that that is the preferred way to answer any question put to you in Russia. She even taught me how to say it in Russian in the case that anybody ever asked me anything. If you are living in an authoritarian regime, then please remember to be a “know nothing.”
Jesus is waiting to answer our sincere questions. He is the one who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. If you know nothing else in your life, please know at least that much. And, please do not pretend not to know that Jesus is the Son of God, with all of God’s authority and power here on earth.