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By Whose Authority?

By Sr. Anne, SSJD.

Jesus Casts Out The Money Changers by William Hole, 1900s.

The readings for today all have one common theme and that is about authority. Authority conferred by God and authority challenged by the Hebrew people during the Exodus and the religious authorities during Jesus’ time.

In the first reading from Exodus we learn:

 “Directed by God, the whole community of Israel journeyed by stages from the wilderness of Sin and camped at Rephidim. There was no water there.”

When journeying by stages the Israelites would have an opportunity for rest and refreshment. They would need a source of water at each resting place because people and livestock require significant amounts of water everyday, a matter of life and death. As Israel proceeds as the Lord commanded in the wilderness, when they arrive at their camp at Rephidim, there is no provision of water.

“Once more the people complained against Moses. “Give us water to drink!” they demanded.” But tormented by thirst, the people murmured against Moses and said, “Why did you take us from Egypt and drag us out here with our children and animals to die of thirst?”

These first two verses are brief and to the point and serves to question the leadership of Moses. The people file a complaint against Moses for his ineffectiveness and incompetence. Moses has not and cannot produce drinking water. Thirsty for water now, the people murmur against Moses. They accuse Moses for bringing them out of Egypt to die and doubt his motives and leadership.

Moses, when faced with this crisis, asks God. “What am I to do with this people?

The Lord answered, “Walk out in front of the people, taking some of the elders with you. Take with you the staff with which you struck the water of the Nile and Go!”

God instructs Moses to move in front of the people to re-affirm his status as their leader. He is to take the elders with him, both to confirm his leadership and to act as witnesses. God’s response to Moses does not address the problem of Moses’ leadership or safety, but directly addresses the people’s problem of thirst. Moses is to use his staff again, which embodies his authority from God. Only God can give the resources for life in this way; God works through the hand of Moses.

As we turn our attention to the Gospel reading for today, we find the question of authority is important throughout Matthew’s Gospel. Several instances are mentioned:

1) Jesus taught as one having authority (7:29)

2) A Roman centurion recognized the power behind Jesus’ authority (8:8)

3) Jesus’ authority to forgive sins was validated by his authority to heal paralysis. The crowds were in awe of his authority. (9:8)

4) Jesus conferred authority on his disciples over unclean spirits (10:1)

5) Jesus gave his disciples authority to bind and to loose (16:19 & 18:18)

Finally, this Gospel closes with Jesus’ words, “All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth.” (28:18)

The context in Chapter 21 tells of Jesus’ triumphant march into Jerusalem (vs. 1-11) and of his cleansing of the temple (vs 12-13). It is the cleansing of the temple that precipitates the confrontation between Jesus and the chief priest and the elders in this Gospel. It is their authority that Jesus defied when he overturned the tables of the money – changers because money changers required the approval of religious authorities to pursue their business in the Temple.

Jesus didn’t try to engage the money – changers in debate, nor did he ask approval before acting. He just walked into the Temple and began to spill money on the floor saying,

“It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’, but you have made it a den of robbers.”

Following that confrontation, Jesus entered the Temple and began to teach. The chief priests and the elders of the people came to him and demanded,

 “By what authority are you doing these things? Who gave you this authority?”

The Sanhedrin of which the chief priests and elders were members, was the highest authority in Israel. The chief priests and the elders were responsible for the religious life of Israel and the operation of the temple and as there were established procedures for transmitting authority from one generation to the next, their authority came from God. At that time, it was appropriate for them to question Jesus’ authority to disrupt the temple routine. Jesus responds to their question with another question.

Jesus answered, “I will ask you a single question; if you give me the answer, I will tell you by what authority I do these things. Did John’s authority to baptize come from heaven, or was it merely human?”

In countering a question with another question, Jesus was employing a standard rabbinical technique of argumentation that was in use at the time. Jesus’ question also implies that his authority came from the same source as John the Baptist’s. In mentioning John the Baptist, Jesus evoked a picture of the stream of prophets, the authentic bearers of God’s Word, throughout Israel’s history. Jesus identified John and himself with this succession of prophets who were sent by God but rejected by each generation.

In the end the chief priests and elders after arguing the question among themselves decided not to answer the question at all.

They replied to Jesus, “We don’t know.” Jesus said in reply, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.”

When the chief priest and elders refused to answer Jesus’ question, he refuses to answer theirs, thus rejecting their authority to examine him.

Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, used an ancient Christian hymn in Chapter 2:5-11 to tell about Jesus, who was pointing towards their ultimate authority in living out their Christian life. This hymn is the greatest and most moving passage ever written about Jesus. It is a recital of Jesus’ saving acts. The first stanza of the hymn speaks of Christ’s pre-existent condition in divine form in which Christ did not count his Godly status and authority something to be exploited for his personal use or benefit. Rather, he was willing to sacrifice them in the service of a higher value – the salvation of humankind.

The second stanza recites the fact of the Incarnation; Jesus who in pre-existence lived in a condition of divine glory, condescended to assume the enslaved condition of our humanity. There is no attempt to explain how this transition could take place, or to explore the mystery of the relation between the form of God and the form of a slave. His descent was voluntary. Jesus willingly gave up the glory of divinity in order to become human. He emptied himself of his deity to take upon himself his humanity.

The third stanza tells of Jesus’ death; the culminating act of the human condition. It is not explicitly stated to whom the obedience is rendered. The thought bears rather upon his submission to the Elemental spirits, that the Redeemer in his descent occupies the third realm of the universe, the realm of death making him one with the dead, as he has made himself one with the living.

Because of this obedience, God highly exalted Christ and gave to Jesus the name above every name. One of the common biblical ideas is the giving of a new name to mark a new stage of a person’s life. This new name for Jesus was LORD which meant that he was the master and the owner of all life.

In the first part of the hymn, JESUS CHRIST is the acting subject all the way through; In the second part, it is God who acts and Christ is the object of that divine action. God has exalted the one who humbled himself and God has given Jesus the name of THE LORD – the name above every name- to the one who took the form of a slave. The spirit powers of the heavens, of the earth, and of the underworld now acclaim him as LORD. It is the humanity of Jesus that is now exalted and endued with all authority.

The four words ‘JESUS CHRIST IS LORD’ was the first creed that the Christian Church ever had. To be a Christian was to confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. This was a simple creed, yet all – embracing. When a person can say “For me Jesus Christ is Lord” it means that they are prepared to give Jesus their obedience and to no one else.

By whose authority? How do we live out that question in our lives today? 

For us as Sisters, we find a clue through our vow of Obedience

We are called to give obedience to God in the context of our vocation. Obedience in the religious life is the fulfilment of the will of God as discerned through respectful listening and discussion; through the Chapter and other formal decision-making processes provided in the Constitution; through the Community leadership as provided for in the Statutes; and through living together and sharing the fruits of our individual and common prayer.