Authority and Humility

a sermon for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 21)

The leaders of the temple received their authority by having friends in Rome.  But when they challenged Jesus, they learned the nature of divine authority.


Back in the 1950’s, the governor of Massachusetts, a man by the name of Christian Herter, was running for reelection for a second term.  One day, after a busy morning chasing votes (and no lunch) he arrived at a church barbecue. It was late afternoon and the governor was famished. As he moved down the serving line, he held out his plate to the woman serving chicken. She put a piece on his plate and turned to the next person in line.

“Excuse me,” Governor Herter said, “do you mind if I have another piece of chicken?”
“Sorry,” the woman told him. “I’m supposed to give one piece of chicken to each person.”
“But I’m starved,” the governor said.
“Sorry,” the woman said again. “Only one to a customer.”
Governor Herter was a modest and unassuming man, but he decided that this time he would throw a little weight around.
“Do you know who I am?” he said. “I am the governor of this state.”
“Do you know who I am?” the woman said. “I’m the lady in charge of the chicken.  Now move along, mister.”

The governor learned a lesson about authority.

It’s a simple fact of human nature that we whenever we are in a crowd or a group of people, we try to figure out who has the most authority.  As children, we learn that the people with authority are generally the adults – our parents and teachers are the ones we’re suppose to listen to.  As we get older, we tend to look for other signs of authority, like clothes – maybe a uniform of a policeman or soldier, or a certain kind of robe and stole.  Or maybe we look for signs of wealth, like the kind of car a person drives or how big their home is.

Back when I first started working in corporate America, I quickly learned that the people with more authority in the company were the ones with bigger offices.  In fact, I had a friend who taught me the trick of counting ceiling tiles in a person’s office, to figure out who was higher in the pecking order.  Whenever he went into someone’s office, he would quickly scan the ceiling, counting tiles.  Of course, this made for very awkward introductions in business meetings, because whenever I met someone, they’d be looking straight at me, while I was stuck looking up into the air, counting ceiling tiles.

Society in Jesus’ day followed some pretty strict rules of authority; who was “in” and who was “out”, who had power and who didn’t.  The Romans were in charge, of course.  But they also appointed certain leaders of the Jewish community to serve as their city managers.  So the chief priests and the elders of the temple were pretty powerful men in and  of themselves, second only to Pontius Pilat.  One day Jesus came to the temple and nearly started a riot.  He overturned the tables of all the money changers and tore down some of the merchant’s stalls.

Of course, the chief priests and elders of the temple were furious, and they decided to confront him.  But Jesus didn’t didn’t wear a uniform and he didn’t have an office, so nobody could count ceiling tiles.  As a result, they just had to ask him straight up. “By what authority did you do this?” they asked. “And who gave this authority to you?”

In other words, who the heck do you think you are, Jesus?  We’re the ones who’ve been running things around here, not you.  What gives you the right to throw the merchants out of the temple?  What gives you the right to change the way we do things around here?

Jesus answered the question of the chief priests and elders with another question.  Does baptism come from God or from man?  For us, the answer is obvious.  It is God who baptizes us; God is the one who sends the Holy Spirit at our baptism and adopts us as God’s own.

But the chief priests were not prepared to admit that.  So they refused to answer.  By the same token, Jesus decided not to answer their question, either.  He didn’t want to get into contest counting ceiling tiles, trying to see who had the bigger office.  He was far too humble for that.

And maybe that is the point.  His authority was based on humily.

In Paul’s letter to the Philippians, we read,

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vanity, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves….
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,  did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.

There comes a time when each of us has to decide for ourselves, “who is Jesus and what is his authority?”  Is really the Son of God, or merely a very nice man?  And if he is God, then how does that change the way we’ve been doing things?  What does that mean for the way we live?  And what does it mean as far as who is “inside” and who is “outside” the circle of Christ’s fellowship?

Whenever we are faced with the prospect of making a change, somebody asks questions about authority.  Whenever somebody new comes along and changes the way we do things; or when our country abolished slavery; or when the first black Americans and then women won the right to vote; or when the right for all people to live where they want, and work where they want, and go to school where they want was established; when, only a few years ago when the right for people of different races to marry was affirmed; or even now as our church and our society debate the meaning of same-sex relationships.  In each of these situations we have to ask the question, “by what authority do we do this, and where does that authority come from?”

As followers of Jesus, we can only have one answer – the authority of Jesus Christ, the One who served tax collectors and prostitutes, sinners like me and you, and who brings us all back into relationship with God, our creator.

The authority of Christ is the only authority that matters. His authority is based not on power, wealth, or prestige, but on humility, love, and servanthood.  His authority comes from his humility and divinity – his own freely given sacrifice of own divine authority, so that we all could live forever in the presence of God.

Thanks be to God.

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