In the time leading up to today’s gospel passage, Jesus has been busy. The day before, he entered the Temple, upended the tables where people traded their Roman coins for Temple coins, and then used those Temple coins to purchase doves, which they then offered as sacrifice.
As you can imagine, this kind of thing likely didn’t happen very often. Imagine, first, the mess of it all: the noise of all those coins hitting the ground and the walls and the people; the doves flying away if they could get free, or hurt if they were chained to something that held them as the tables turned. There must have been the whole business of sorting out which Temple coins belonged to whom, and the same with doves…and anybody who has ever seen money fly can guess that there was not an orderly or happy resolution among the merchants or the money traders or their customers.
And imagine, too, the fallout conversations afterwards. Did you hear what happened in the Temple? The rabbi, from Nazareth, the tables, the money, the pigeons. Were you there? Did you see it? What did people do? What happened afterwards? It must have been enough to keep people talking for the rest of the day and into the next.
So that all happened yesterday, in Gospel time. Today, Jesus enters the Temple to teach. The chief priests and the elders approach him (again…you might imagine their posture, their gaze, the urgency of their stride), asking: “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”
Jesus has disrupted business as usual in their most sacred space. He created chaos for people likely unaccustomed to it, certainly not expecting such behavior in that location. And they want to know why. There may even be a little bit of that “who exactly do you think you are?” lingering in their words.
I always thought of the phrase “Question Authority” as belonging on buttons stuck to jean jackets or backpacks, along with lots of other buttons with political statements. I think about it together with protests of the Vietnam War, with leaders in the 1960s trying to bring about peace. So it surprised me not at all that Timothy Leary, that edgy countercultural psychologist, used the phrase often.
It surprised me a great deal, though, to learn that scholars credit Socrates with authoring that phrase. So it turns out the question has been around a whole lot longer than 50 years.
Authority is a tricky business. One who holds the positional authority of a group also holds the power to maintain order, to get things done, to arbitrate and legislate, to control, command, and determine. We can see that in the way those chief priests and elders hold their authority in the Temple; they know how things are supposed to work, and they seem troubled by the disruption. Control and command bleed through their questions of Jesus.
But there’s more than one kind of authority, not only that which is based on position. There is also the authority we give to those we allow to lead us, once they have earned our trust. Jesus is neither a chief priest nor an elder. He holds no authority based on wealth or seminary education or ordination or election or appointment. He does not enjoy the positional authority that would allow for his command and control of a situation.
But he has cured people. He has taught them, and fed them. He has cleansed them from leprosy, raised some from the dead. He has been who he is in their midst. And many – a scary number, I’m guessing, for those in traditional positions of authority – have entrusted him with the authority to lead them.
So when a guy like that, with a following like that, comes into the Temple and turns over the tables, I can see that it makes the traditional authorities nervous.
They ask their question of his authority. Now, there are questions…and there are questions. There are questions seeking understanding, and there are questions seeking to humiliate and discredit. And I wasn’t there 2000-some years ago in the Temple with those elders and chief priests and disciples and Jesus. But, my guess, Jesus did not perceive their question as seeking understanding.
The question he asks in response lays bare the vulnerability of those priests and elders: “Is John’s baptism from heaven or humanity?” I feel a little sorry for them here…because John the Baptist has to be, next to Jesus, the most terrifying person these traditional authority figures have known. They wear long, grand robes; he wears a hair shirt and Birkenstocks (I imagine, anyway, he would, if they had them). They eat carefully, and kosher; he eats wild honey and bugs. They spend their days in select places of the Temple; he lives out in the wild, among all kinds of animals and people. They pray articulate and pious prayers; he shouts: “Repent! For the kingdom of God is at hand!” And people follow him. People are baptized by him. People regard him as a prophet. They have given him the authority to lead them.
So if the chief priests and the elders say that John’s baptism comes from heaven, they have to count themselves among the motley crew of his followers, and, by extension, Jesus. And if they say that his baptism comes from human origin, that crowd of loyal followers might turn on them, eliminate even the pretense of authority they believe is their right.
That crowd of followers may not be wearing buttons with Socrates’ message by way of Timothy Leary on their backpacks, but by their loyalty and their action, they are questioning authority. And they choose to follow that great disrupter John the Baptist, and the one to whom he always points: Jesus; the one who will disrupt – not just the tables in the Temple, but the very way they understand the world works.
It makes perfect sense that the chief priests and the elders are nervous. They should be. If what they ascribe as most important is the authority they hold by virtue of the positions to which they are named or ordained, they should be nervous indeed.
Neither John the Baptist nor Jesus Christ came into the world to protect the status quo. Jesus did not take on human flesh in order to maintain the power structures that kept poor people hungry and sick people isolated. John the Baptist did not carry a bullhorn to cry out “Keep on going the way you’re going, because everything you’re doing is really just fine!” No. Instead, he said, “Repent. Turn around. The kingdom of God is right here.”
Transformation, and the growth and change that come from it are never easy or painless. And these poor chief priests and elders hold up an image for us of what it is to want things to stay as they are. Can you blame them? The tables had worked just fine until now, it seemed to them. Coins were traded. Doves were bought and sold and sacrificed. Did that all really have to get turned upside down?
It’s all messy and confusing and chaotic. And where is the order we crave, and who will restore it in ways that we remember and understand?
We live in a watershed moment right now, a time of change that can either destroy or transform. Somewhere in Africa right now, someone is dying of Ebola. And somewhere in Africa right now, someone else is giving his life to try to save that sick person. Somewhere in Syria last week, another person fell victim to a gang of people with Kalashnikov rifles and a machete and a video camera. And in many places around the world, people come together to stand against such terror, giving their authority instead to acts of humanity and grace.
What I think is true of this time is that the tables have been turned upside down. Whether we’re talking about the steadiness of institutions or structures or ways of being, things will not be as they always have been. Those tables have been disrupted. And now it is our job to question authority as well. And now the question Jesus asks of the elders and the priests might be the question, finally, he asks of us: Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin? Which is really: Whom will you follow in this journey? Which is, ultimately: Where do you place your trust?
Jesus’ condemnation of those who question him is not found in their desire to question authority, but their unwillingness to see transformation and refuse to change in the face of it. “For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes (did); and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds…”
Where will we place our trust?