By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority? (Matthew 21:23)
As is often the case with Jesus, He turns the tables. He poses a question back to the chief priests and elders regarding whether ohn’s baptism was from heaven or from human origin. In searching for an answer, the religious experts are paralyzed and afraid. If they say “from heaven,” they are convicted because they didn’t listen to him. If they say “of human origin,” they will be afraid of the crowd, “for all regard John as a prophet.” “We don’t know” is the only answer they can come up with. So there they stand; frozen, paralyzed, in fear, stuck. What is Jesus’ response? “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.”
I don’t know about you, but I find this to be a very humbling verse. What is most clear is that Jesus is in charge. When the attempt is made to undermine Jesus’ authority by clever questioning, Jesus won’t play the game. He turns the tables and makes it clear as to just who is in charge. He leaves His questioners not only afraid to answer, but unable to answer.
One of the reasons this text is working on me is because I read it this morning. But the other reason is because of a question a parishioner asked me, “Who is authorizing the nongeographic synod I read about in The Lutheran?” I was caught a little off guard. He wasn’t asking it in a challenging way, but rather in an analytical way. It struck me that all of us who seek to follow Jesus Christ need to be asked that question. “By what authority” do we do what we do? Is it from heaven (or at least someone thought to be “higher” than us) or is it of human origin (like something that comes only from us)? If our answer is a paralyzing fear that only keeps us silent, then Jesus has effectively shut us down and put us in our places. And it is likely that we will no longer follow His lead.
Although in Matthew’s context it was meant as a challenge to Jesus, “By what authority?” is still a good question. We need to have it asked. And with that question, others follow such as: Who really knows where Jesus is leading the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America? WordAlone? A nongeographic synod? vAnd by what authority do we do what we do? Is it the authority of councils and assemblies and constitutions? All authority must come from the same place. This much is clear. We’ll all be following the wrong lead (or be paralyzed with fear and silence) if the only authority that is, was, or ever will be, is not the same Jesus who turned the tables on religious experts long ago.
The Lord Jesus is leading. He is still that authoritative and living Word in our midst. The Lord Jesus will cut His own course in His world and in His church. The only question then is whether we will dare to follow His lead or be paralyzed by fear or silence. What is certain is that Jesus will remain the only Word that does not return empty, but will accomplish the purpose for which it is sent.