13 December 2010

Matthew 21:23-27

"When he entered the temple, the chief priests and elders of the temple came to him as he was teaching, and said, 'By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?'" (v. 23)


If you were at home and someone stormed into your house and started telling your children how to behave, how might you respond? If someone came into your church during a Sunday service and started preaching uninvited, how would you feel? Wouldn't you ask who they were, by what authority they were doing these things and who gave them permission to behave in this way? 

I sometimes feel that the chief priests and elders are given too much of a hard time. Jesus hadn't been given authority to teach by his synagogue or by the temple where we find him being questioned in today's passage. So what right did he have to teach in the temple? It's important to remember that this passage in Matthew's Gospel comes just after Jesus has driven out those buying and selling in the temple, overturning the tables of the money changers in verses 12 and 13. If he wanted to upset people, he's certainly going about it in the right way. 

So perhaps the chief priests and elders can be forgiven for being miffed and taking Jesus to task over his authority. But they got no satisfaction from quizzing him. For them, debating with Jesus must have been infuriating. You ask him a question and instead of answering it, he responds with another question - one designed specially to trip you up. 

But perhaps their question wasn't so innocent after all. Jesus' response to the chief priests and elders revealed that they were motivated primarily not by matters of decency or proper behaviour, but by their own self-interest. When they discuss how to respond to him they aren't concerned with truth, but with what people will think if they answer one way or another. So they decide to sit on the fence. 

Maybe Jesus wasn't being cryptic just for the sake of it, it was because the chief priests and elders refused to be open and honest with him about their motives. Their question was a perfectly reasonable one, but their attitudes undermined that. Because they refused to be real with Jesus, he refused to be real with them. 

To Ponder

How hard is it for you to be real with God? What, in your life, do you need to be more honest with God about?

What authority does your faith give to you? How do you choose to exercise that authority?

What authority do you attribute to Jesus' teachings? How important do you think they are for 21st century life?

Bible notes author

Anna Drew

Anna Drew is Director of Communications for the Diocese of Canterbury. She is a regular contributor to BBC Radio 4's Daily Service and Prayer for the Day and a freelance writer on faith issues.