“By What Authority?”

Tuesday, April 3, 2012 — Tuesday in Holy Week

Readings for the Daily Office (Book of Common Prayer, p. 957)

Psalms (morning) 6, 12 // 94 (evening)

Lamentations 1:17-22

2 Corinthians 1:8-12

Mark 11:27-33

[Go to http://www.missionstclare.com/english/index.html for an online version of the Daily Office including today’s scripture readings.]

Jesus has attacked the Temple in the name of God. He has reasserted the ancient prophetic vision that the Temple be a house of prayer for all people. He has turned out the established system of sacrifices, with the profitable business of exchanging unclean for clean, claiming, again in God’s name, that they had turned the Temple into a den of robbers.

By what authority? That’s the questions the authorities have. Where did you get your authority, Jesus? The authorities know where their authority comes from.

First, they know that their authority comes from scripture, and from a traditional interpretation of the Bible. All of the business about unclean and clean animals comes from the scripture. The entire sacrificial system for righting wrong is spelled out in detail in the Bible. The prohibition against common Roman coinage is a defense of the first commandment against graven images. Caesar claims to be divine, the Son of God. It would be blasphemy to bring his image into the holy Temple. These religious authorities know their Bible. They quote it and enforce it with energetic intention, believing in their hearts that they are defending God.

Second, they know that they have the authority of recognition from the acknowledged establishments of religion and state. The Temple is given permission by the Roman governor to carry out its religious practice. The ordering of the Temple has oversight from the religious authorities. This is the traditional, structured way that this people has carried out its corporate religious practice for centuries. It is established tradition.

Scripture and established tradition — that’s where the authority comes from for the Temple magistrates.

But who is this Galilean rebel and where does he get the gumption to walk in here and nearly start a riot, attacking the established foundations of the Temple? They ask him to declare his grounds.; “By what authority are you doing these things?”

Jesus could have answered them. He could have said, “By the authority of God.” But they would have answered back, “We have God’s authority; who do you think you are? We are the recognized, established authorities of God.”

Jesus could have said, “Because of what is written in the Scriptures.” He could have continued to quote the prophets and declare God’s intention that the Temple be radically open and inclusive — a house of prayer for all people. He could have quoted from all of the stories and psalms and prophets about God’s preferential regard for the poor. But they would have answered back, shooting Bible bullets to reference and defend every practice that Jesus attacks.

There’s no talking with them. It won’t help. Some folks won’t be budged. Not if they’ve got Bible and tradition behind them.

So Jesus asks them a trick question. What about John the Baptist? Of course, they didn’t like him either. But the people did. The people loved him and thought he was a prophet. The authorities were flummoxed. Either they were afraid to risk the scorn and unpopularity of the crowd. Or they were afraid to admit an uncomfortable truth that didn’t fit with their comfortable traditions.

So they didn’t answer Jesus. They quit talking. They quit listening too. They weren’t going to change. It was too costly. It would cost them the entire system they had been living for. It would cost them the comfort of knowing they were right, the comfort of a belief that had been, well…, comfortable. It would cost them their security, because their money came from their system of belief. It was just too far to go. So they abandoned the uncomfortable consideration of uncomfortable truths. They quit talking; they quit listening; they started plotting how they could undermine this troublemaker, if necessary, with violence.

Every social movement that has challenged the established privileges has met the same kind of resistance. Every economic reform that has challenged the established interests has met the same kind of resistance. Every new discovery that has broken with the conventional paradigm has met the same kind of resistance.

It’s almost impossible to attack entrenched power straight-on. It must be undermined. Usually its destructive power has to be brought out into the open where everyone can see its brokenness. But that means victims. Dogs on the bridge at Selma. Witches drowned and gay people burned (fagged). Union organizers busted. Sick people without access to medicine letting their suffering be filmed on TV. Illegal pictures of body bags. Homeless people in your face. A frustrated 99% occupying Wall Street.

“By what authority?” the authorities demand, as they shut down and shut up the uncomfortable ones.

Most of the time now, one answer that the challengers give is “Jesus.” By the authority of Jesus we are doing this. By his example of compassion and healing and forgiveness and generosity and love. By the authority of Jesus the victims confront the abusive and violent. He keeps overturning tables and tipping the scales forever.

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