The King’s judgements
It is easy to take this passage on its own as a question of where the authority of Jesus comes from and use it to branch out into what Christians believe the authority of Jesus to be; there’s nothing wrong with that and I will be doing it later. Bear in mind that this is part of a sandwich in which Jesus was rejected by the chief priests, Jesus symbolically curses a tree and Jesus returns to the temple.
23 And when he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came up to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” 24 Jesus answered them, “I also will ask you one question, and if you tell me the answer, then I also will tell you by what authority I do these things. 25 The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?” And they discussed it among themselves, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven’, he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ 26 But if we say, ‘From man’, we are afraid of the crowd, for they all hold that John was a prophet.” 27 So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.Matthew 21:23-27 ESVUK
The chief priests had already rejected Jesus. It shows in their antagonistic attitude towards Jesus healing instead of praising God. The opposition to Jesus has been growing since Jesus was rejected in Nazareth (Matthew 13:53-58), since which Jesus has been escaping from them for the last year:
- Across the Jordan where the Jews followed him and he fed 5000 (Matthew 14:13-21).
- To the area of Tyre and Sidon where a Canaanite woman’s daughter is healed (Matthew 15:22-29).
- Across the Jordan where 4000 Gentiles are fed (Matthew 15:32-39).
- To the region of Caesarea Philippi where Peter declares that Jesus is the Messiah (Matthew 16:13-20).
Each time Jesus and his disciples returned to Galilee they received greater hostility from the Jewish authorities. Jesus and his disciples had travelled to Jerusalem by a long route, down the east side, the wrong side, of the River Jordan, which meant crossing the river twice, before approaching Jerusalem from Jericho.
Back to today’s passage…
The attitude of the chief priests and elders showed that they thought of themselves as God’s gatekeepers. “On what authority are you doing these things?” is a pointed question because it was not done on their authority. They had the authority to keep people out, or so they thought. Jesus was wrong to heal people in the temple because they had not given him permission.
The job of the priests was to offer animal sacrifices so that people could have access to God, but instead, they were interpreting God’s rules in a way that denied people access, and they enjoyed having the authority to wield that power to exclude people.
Jesus, on the other hand, gave up the glory of Heaven to become poor even by earthly standards to help the poor, he became vulnerable to help the vulnerable, he became weak to help the weak. He invited the exhausted and heavily burdened people to come to him for rest and announced that anyone who comes to him would never be rejected. This upset people. To the orthodox people he was not orthodox he was not traditional enough. To the religious people, he was not traditional enough. Even the liberal people disliked him as though he accepted and defended those whom the religious would rejected he said, “Go and sin no more,” How harsh!
The priests were not helping the weak in that society, they preferred their power and privilege to getting their hands dirty. Someone who got his hands dirty among the poor and unprivileged was not for them.
The job of Christians, especially those Christians in positions of power but also the rest of us, is to be like Jesus. To defend the poor, the weak, the vulnerable the downtrodden and the unprivileged. We should be making ourselves vulnerable to help the vulnerable in society, the rich and privileged already have what they want. Our job is to open the gates of heaven to all who would want to come in not to be gatekeepers and deny people access to God who loves them.