23When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” 24Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. 25Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ 26But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” 27So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.
28“What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ 29He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. 30The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. 31Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.
The Greek word exousia typically refers to power or authority. Specifically, power or authority granted to a person or government by a superior person or institution. For example, as a pastor I preside over the ritual of marriage by the authority of the church and I preside over the legal contract of marriage by the authority of the state.
The Roman centurion who seeks help from Jesus acknowledges Jesus’ relationship to power in correlation to his own, explaining his trust that Jesus’ word is sufficient to command healing in terms of exousia: “For I also am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and the slave does it’” (Matthew 8:9). And in Luke’s gospel account, after Jesus has both healed and forgiven a paralyzed man the matter in question is not Jesus’ ability to heal (dunamis) but the authority under which he presumes to forgive sins (Luke 5:17-26).
Jesus lived and Matthew’s gospel account was written in a world subject to the imperial power structure of ancient Rome. In this world, while many may have been capable of performing certain tasks, they did so under the authority of the governors and, ultimately, the emperor himself. Thus, while the centurion was a man of power with 100 soldiers under his authority, he acknowledges that he himself remains under the higher authority of his superiors as well.
The chief priests during this time period also drew their authority from the Roman crown. During the time of Jesus, chief priests were appointed and drew their authority from the Roman governors of Jerusalem. In exchange for modest wealth and protection, these native leaders became collaborators, no longer serving under the authority of the God to whom their temple was dedicated, but to the Roman colonizers who gave them the appearance of power.
On the other hand, the elders drew their power from the people. These were the lay leaders of the common people who had acquired a small amount of authority and power by means of popular accolade. Their authority, thus, rested in the perception of the people. However, since the chief priests themselves carried a weighty opinion as leaders of the people, this meant that the elders had to maintain the balance between these Roman collaborators and the Jewish commoners in order to maintain their place in the delicate power structure.
Both groups were, therefore, understandably concerned when Jesus began to undermine their authority as leaders of the temple and the people of Jerusalem. This is seen most dramatically when Jesus overturns the tables of money changers in Matthew 21:12. By his presence in the temple, by his words and deeds, Jesus was disrupting the order of things and therefore he was also threatening the claim to authority of the chief priests and elders themselves.
So it is no surprise that these groups who in other circumstances may find themselves at opposite ends of a dispute, with regard to Jesus’ presence, unite around a central question or, more accurately, concern: “By whose authority are you doing these things” (Matthew 21:23).
Jesus, however, is well aware of the power politics at play. He is aware both that the chief priests cannot recognize a Jewish messiah who calls into question the divine authority of Caesar from whom they draw their own power and authority and that the elders of the people cannot call into question the baptism of John who even after his death remained very popular among the people from whom they draw their own power and authority. They are in a stalemate. Whatever these two authorities believe about Jesus to be true, if they are to say anything in response to his question, their own place in the power structure could be threatened.
Rather than merely celebrate Jesus’ ability to think on his feet, however, we today would do better to take a lesson from the political stand off behind Jesus’ clever trap. To whom do we owe our allegiances? From whom is our power and authority derived? While contemporary Christians may not have the threat of death or exile as immediately on our minds as the chief priests of Jesus’ day, most of us probably find ourselves tongue-tied by other, subtler strings.
Political aides, public attorneys, and judges often find themselves unable or unwilling to speak out against injustice because they cannot appear partisan in American politics. Corporate attorneys, business people, and stock holders may choose to look the other way when the corruption or abuse of power of a company serves to line their pockets. Often ordinary people are hesitant to post a sign in their yard or speak out against or in favor of a public policy or politician for fear of changes in their neighbors’ opinion of them.
Jesus acts by the authority of God. The answer is clear from the rest of Matthew’s gospel account before the question is even formed on the inquisitors’ mouths. The better question is, what “authorities” keep us from doing the same?
The Rev. Dr. Amy Lindeman Allen is Co-Lead Pastor at The Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in Reno, NV. She holds her PhD from Vanderbilt University in New Testament and Early Christianity.