“By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”
September 28, 2023, Words By: Rev. Sarah Wiles, Image By: Zehra Saldirdak
Our passage leaves out exactly what unauthorized things Jesus has been doing. If we back up, we see that this inquisition takes place the morning after Jesus has entered Jerusalem cheered on by a crowd. In Matthew, he goes straight to the temple, interrupts commerce, and causes a royal scene. The next morning, he has the gall to go back, and that’s when the religious authorities demand to know, “Who said you could act like this?”
The context is essential, but it is never read in Year A. In fact, the story of the protest in the temple is in all four gospels, but is only read once in the entire Revised Common Lectionary. It seems the authorities still aren’t quite comfortable with that disruption of business as usual.
People have been asking Jesus, “How dare you?” from the age of twelve. “How dare you run off and hang out in the temple without telling us?” “How dare you claim to forgive sins?” “How dare you heal on the wrong day?” “How dare you eat with imperial collaborators?” “How dare you let that woman touch you? Don’t you know what she is?”
I’m an ordained Presbyterian pastor. Which is to say, I am fairly steeped in labyrinthine regulations about who has authority for what. Ordination for Presbyterians requires a three-year master’s degree, approval by committee no fewer than four times, passing five exams, majority votes by a gathering of regional churches twice, and the act of a commission to get the job done. We are not the only denomination that has rules like this.
For years I longed to speak the words that claim people in the waters of baptism and to bless and break the body of Christ. I was finally ordained in September, 2009, about six weeks after I started my first full-time pastoral call. Those six weeks seemed interminable as I waited for the official word: ordained.
About a week before my ordination, I was visiting Dorothy. Dorothy was a parishioner in her eighties who was at the end of her life. She was often confused and unable to get out of bed. When I told her I would be away the following week, she grasped my hand with surprising strength and said, “I need you. We need you. You’re our pastor.”
That, I realized years later, was when I actually became a pastor. By whose authority? By Dorothy’s.
Jesus’ authority is God-given and recognized by the people. Specifically, the folks on the underside. This is always how true authority is conferred. It is given by God and affirmed by the people most in need of care.
I do believe it is reasonable for groups of people to arrange systems that decide in an orderly way who they will recognize as an authority. Great harm has been done in God’s name. But those committees, commissions, bishops, and faculty do not truly confer authority. Ultimately, the poor, and imprisoned, and sick, and shunned decide.
I’m thinking of the Roman Catholic women who are ordained on boats because no official jurisdiction will acknowledge them, though they are called as surely as any celibate man. I’m thinking of the countless pastors who, for years, have married couples the church won’t recognize. I’m thinking of the village midwife I met up in the mountains of the Dominican Republic who baptized all the babies she delivered using the same words the priest would have, if there’d been one.
I’m thinking of the millions of lay folks who, during the years we couldn’t gather in person, took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to their beloveds around the kitchen table, and it was the bread of heaven, even if no one said so. I’m thinking of the couple who named their stillborn daughter Katie and baptized her themselves. I’m thinking of the three-year-old who one time yelled “Joy!” throughout my sermon, echoing me every time I said the word. Who gave her permission to disrupt worship like that?
Dwelling Among Us
To whom, besides Christ, do you give authority in your life?
What authority has God given you that has been recognized by others, whether through “official” channels or not?