A Questioning Authority

October 1, 2017

Church of the Servant, Wilmington, NC
Proper 21, Year A
Ezekiel 18:1-4,25-32; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32

Listen here, or read below:

Today’s gospel reading begins with Jesus in the temple. The chief priests and the elders came to him and asked, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Before we dive into that riveting question, let’s step back a minute.

Last we saw Jesus, he was on the road to Jerusalem, using parables to teach about the kingdom of heaven. Yet here we are today, with Jesus in Jerusalem teaching in the temple. Our lectionary has jumped over an important piece of the story. And it skipped a couple of our favorite scenes. We missed the Palm Sunday entrance into Jerusalem – disciples untying the donkey, the crowd waving branches and crying Hosannas as Jesus rides in. And then, even better, overturning the tables in the temple market. Jesus gets mad – we love that part!

Then it goes on to say, “The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he cured them.” (Mt 21:14). And he begins teaching and the people are crying out, in the temple, “Hosanna to the son of David.”

The chief priests and scribes – those who are the ones in authority in the temple – see all this and wonder what the heck is going on. They’re angry and ask Jesus what he has to say for himself. And Jesus responds by quoting words of the prophets of old. “My house should be called a house of prayer” and “Out of the mouths of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise for yourself.” And, as if that settles it, we’re told “He left them, went out of the city to Bethany, and spent the night there.”

But can you imagine what was going on back at the temple? No doubt the emergency calling-tree was activated among the chief priests, scribes and elders and everyone came to the temple for an “all-hands” meeting. The scribe-of-the-day gave a full report of what happened, assessed the damage to the money-changer tables and dove-seller seats, and pointed out exactly where this Jesus guy was sitting in the temple.

The liaisons to the money-changers and animal-sellers each called their respective committee chair to assure them their roles were valued, and they were an essential part of the temple community. No doubt, the sexton was called to put all the money-changer tables and dove-seller seats back in order before the temple reopened in the morning. There could be no evidence of this subversive behavior. The next day it would be back to business, er, I mean, worship, as usual!

And to make doubly sure, the most stalwart leaders would be the ones on hand the next day in case this trouble-maker dares show up again. I mean really, who does this guy think he is? By what authority does he do these things?!

Like sitting in the front of the bus or knelling during the national anthem – by what authority would someone do these things? (Did I just say that out loud?)

Today’s story picks up the action in the temple the next day, when Jesus returns. He knows the leaders have called him out, but it doesn’t deter him from doing his work – serving his purpose. He’s bringing attention to things that are being done to satisfy the letter of the Hebrew law, but are missing the spirit of God’s law.

For example, the letter of the law says that you must keep the Sabbath holy. Well, that seems vague to me, and certainly did to the Israelites upon receiving the commandments from Moses. So they put together some specific rules to delineate what was and wasn’t allowed on the Sabbath. How far you could walk, how much you could carry, no watching tv or playing X-box games – you get the idea. The intention was to limit your other activities so you could focus all your attention on God.

Then Jesus shows up and starts healing people on the Sabbath. Is that Work or Not Work? Is it contrary to keeping the Sabbath holy? A person gets healed – how is that not holy? But while that may be easy for us to say with our 21st century mindset, not so much for the rule-following temple leaders of Jesus’ time. If they allow that, well, it’s a slippery slope!

And what about these money-changers and dove-sellers? What’s that all about?

Well, the book of Leviticus is filled with chapter after chapter of painstakingly detailed rules about ritual sacrifice. It clearly delineates what type of animal is to be used for a sin offering, which one for a guilt offering, or for a thanksgiving offering and so on. In all cases, they are told that the animal is to be unblemished – that is, they were to offer to God the best they had, not the worst. The first fruits, not that which would otherwise be thrown away. [I feel a stewardship sermon comin’ on – you’ve been warned – but let’s move on.]

When these rules were set forth, there was no temple in Jerusalem. There was a big tent used for these ritual sacrifices. The tent was collapsible.  It moved where the people moved. So, the livestock was close to the tent-temple, so the ability to keep an animal unblemished when leading it to its offering place, wasn’t an issue. The problem came when the temple became stone and mortar in Jerusalem. Now, Israelites had to journey to the temple from wherever they lived, several times a year, to make their offerings to God. The rules of Leviticus were not lessened in spite of this change – it says unblemished, and by gum, we must adhere to the letter of the law.

So, they hired some consultants to analyze and solve the problem. Picture them gathered around a conference table in a back room of the temple. It probably sounded something like this:

The project leaders states the problem, “We have too many animals that begin the journey to Jerusalem as an unblemished, but get scuffed up and damaged along the way. So, how can this issue be resolved?”

The eager new consultant suggests, “What if we just amended the rules to allow for a certain amount of “wear and tear” on the animal based on the distance traveled? We could have a sliding scale.”

Temple Leader: “No, the law is the law. It is written!”

“Okay then, what if the temple makes unblemished livestock available to people who travel in from out of town?”

Elder: “Well, isn’t part of the idea of the offering is that it’s from your own flock, your own field?”

Another consultant chimes in, “But the letter of the law seems to clearly emphasize “unblemished” and is silent about the importance of ownership. So, unblemished must be the most important thing. Right? Of course, right!”

So, they decided to make unblemished animals available in the temple courtyard. These faithful Hebrews may have to pay a little more, but we’re making it easy for them while allowing them to adhere to the letter of the law. Mission accomplished!

Before wrapping up, one of the team raises the issue that these people are coming from all over. Their money is different than the money used in Jerusalem.

So the head consultant decides, “We’ll provide money-changers. These outsiders may have to fork over an up-charge, but ‘You wanna pray, you gotta pay!'”

Okay, that may not be exactly how it happened, but you get the idea.

The traditions of money-changers and dove-sellers were created to serve a particular purpose. Not a bad one, per se, but Jesus’ action was challenging the premise. Jesus, in overturning the tables, was perhaps hoping the temple leaders would look again, look ANEW, at what was in place to see if it really met the initial intent.

Our offering to God is intended to be a generous gift from our bounty. Jesus’ contends that adhering to the letter of the law as it relates to purity isn’t the most important part. What’s most important is that it comes from our heart. That it is a gift from our abundance or even from our scarcity. Something we’ve journeyed with and brought to the altar ourselves. Given willingly, generously, not out of obligation.

By his actions, Jesus was also challenging the status quo. He was asking the Hebrew people, the leaders of the temple, to take another look. Was the letter of the law the most important thing, or the spirit of God’s law?

Like, the “Star Spangled Banner.” While written by Francis Scott Key during the War of 1812, then serving as a patriotic song, even sung by Union soldiers during the Civil War, it wasn’t until 1916, over a hundred years after it was written, in the midst of World War I, that Woodrow Wilson signed an executive order designating it as “the national anthem of the United States.” Even so, it wasn’t designated as such by Congress until March 3, 1931, some 15 years later, after 40 previously failed attempts of passing that legislation.[i]

Its use at sporting events began in 1918, during the first game of the World Series between the Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox – with Babe Ruth on the mound. In the shadow of World War I, ball players were scarce due to military service, and the baseball season was shortened. So, the World Series was played in September instead of October, and Game 1 was on September 5th in Chicago. In addition to the cloud of war, there had been a bombing in the Chicago Federal building the day before, killing four and injuring 30. As you can imagine, this dampened spirits further, causing crowds to be light and the mood somber.

But something happened during the 7th inning stretch. The military band on hand decided to play the “Star Spangled Banner.” An ESPN article recalling the events described it this way:

Upon hearing the opening notes of Key’s song from the military band, [Fred] Thomas [the Red Sox 3rd baseman on furlough from the Navy] immediately faced the flag and snapped to attention with a military salute. The other players on the field followed suit, in “civilian” fashion, meaning they stood and put their right hands over their hearts. The crowd, already standing, showed its first real signs of life all day, joining in a spontaneous sing-along, haltingly at first, then finishing with flair.[ii]

A few days later, when the series moved to Fenway Park, the song was part of the pre-game tribute honoring veterans of World War I. And so, a tradition began.

And while that tradition has been part of the fabric of our lives, just as the money-changers and dove-sellers in the temple courts of Jesus’ time, from time to time, it’s important that we take a fresh look at what it means. That’s all Kaepernick is hoping we will do. We pay tribute to a flag with a hymn written of a long-ago battle, yet there are some in this country who feel embattled every single day. When we face that truth, we are compelled to ask, “What is our appropriate response, and by what authority do we do these things?”

If our response is based in our Baptismal Covenant, we’re starting in the right place. It asks:

Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?

And the people respond: I will, with God’s help.

Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?

And the people respond:  I will, with God’s help.

Jesus calls us to see ANEW those things we have adopted as habit or tradition. To do the work of hearing the cries of others, and ask what a faithful and just response might be. Whether you kneel, sit, stand, lock-arms, put your hand over your heart, or all of the above, in the midst of these turbulent times, keep your eye on the authority at the heart of your life.

Paul’s letter to the Philippians, facing their own strife, put it this way:

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.

And so I ask: Will you strive to be of one mind; having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind?

And the people respond: I will, with God’s help.


Gospel Text:

When Jesus entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. 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?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” 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.

What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him. (Mt 21:23-32)


[i] Christopher Klein, “9 Things You May Not Know About ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’” History Stories, History.com, September 12, 2014. Website: http://www.history.com/news/9-things-you-may-not-know-about-the-star-spangled-banner, accessed September 30, 2017.

[ii] Luke Cyphers and Ethan Trex, “The song remains the same,” ESPN.com, Sept. 8, 2011, This story appeared in the Sept. 19, 2011 issue of ESPN The Magazine. Website: http://www.espn.com/espn/story/_/id/6957582/the-history-national-anthem-sports-espn-magazine, accessed September 30, 2017.


3 Responses to “A Questioning Authority”

  1. Outstanding!! I am sorry I wasn’t there for it!!

  2. jg3potomac said

    Good morning, Jody. This morning’s Chronicle introduced me to a Dallas sportscaster named Dale Hansen who had been reviewed recently by the New York Times concerning his commentary about the Kaepernick protest. If you Google the name Dale Hansen, I think you will be entertained, especially with the WFAA interview and the sound bite about athlete’s flag/national anthem protests. Hanson also appeared on Ellen DeGeneres’s show and that was discussed.

    I hope your sermon writing is going well. A Dale Hansen visit could provide an enjoyable respite.

    How about our Astros!

    Love, Dad Sent from my iPad


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