Bring me an object I can use to talk about God. Those are the instructions I’ve been giving our children for the children’s sermon recently, as the “bag” rotates among them. Well, a few weeks ago, someone large pipe cleaner that he had molded into a question mark because, he said, he mostly had a lot of questions about God. We then spend the next few minutes talking about the fact that we had a lot of questions–about God, the church, faith, religion, life–that we couldn’t necessarily answer, and that there’s a lot in this world that we don’t understand.
A 1991 compilation of letters to God written by children* would back this claim. In a section titled “Puzzlements, dilemmas, and other imponderables” one child asks: “How did you know you were God?” Another one wonders: “Are you really invisible or is that just a trick?” And another wants to know: “Is it true my Father won’t get into Heaven if he uses his bowling words in the house?”
If you think about it, we live in a world today that encourages us to ask questions. It is, after all, how we learn. Questions are good. Even questions about Jesus are good.
It’s also a world, however, that forces those questions because we don’t always know whom or what to trust. “Be careful of what you read on the internet,” we hear time and time again, reminding us that anyone can post anything and claim that it’s true. The internet is not the authority that some people make it. And recently, the rise of “fake news” has taught us to question everything, even so-called “facts.”
Lump these two together–questioning Jesus and questioning authority–and, naturally, you get questions about Jesus’ authority, or, as the dictionary defines it, questions about his “power to give orders, make decisions, and force obedience.”
It’s easy to think that this is a new phenomenon–this ‘question everything-and-especially-authority’ mindset–characteristic of the somewhat crazy times in which we live today, but the story about Jesus in the temple with the chief priests and elders shows us that this nothing new. People have been asking questions about Jesus, authority, and Jesus’ authority for at least two thousand years. “By what authority are you doing these things and who gave you this authority?” the chief priests and elders ask Jesus.
We’ve got to rewind the story a bit to discover what’s going on here. When the chief priests and elders ask Jesus about “these things,” they’re referring to a whole series of events that happened since Jesus made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. So, to put that in perspective, our story today takes place after Palm Sunday, between Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem and his crucifixion.Tensions are mounting between Jesus and the so-called religious authorities. The event that perhaps contributed the most to these tensions was Jesus overturning the moneychangers’ tables, claiming that they had turned a house of prayer into a den of robbers.
What you need to know about this incident is that the moneychangers were there so that people entering the temple could buy animals to offer as sacrifices to God. The offered sacrifices because they believed God required it as payment for their sins, and they were also most likely charging an exorbitant amount for these animals that would prevent people without much money from completing their religious tasks. In turning over the tables, Jesus is pretty much messing up their whole religious system that likely kept some people in power and some people oppressed. So when the chief priests and elders ask Jesus about the source of his authority, what they’re really asking him is who in the world he thinks he is, coming in a destroying a whole system from which they most likely benefit.
Hmm. I hear that question asked a lot today about God and the church, especially when it comes to–and here’s the scary word–change.
Maybe you’ve asked it yourself. Who do you think you are, coming in and wreaking havoc on our system and our lives?
But here’s the thing. Long before the chief priests and the elders question Jesus’ authority, he questions theirs. By overturning the tables in the temple, Jesus is calling into question a whole system that claims authority over God and God’s people. That’s huge, and I liken it, in effect, to Martin Luther calling into question the authority of indulgences, or to the NFL taking a knee, calling into question the authority of our country.
Okay, so what we have now in our Biblical story is multiple people questioning multiple authorities, which is not unlike our story today and the many questions are asked. But that leaves us with a larger question: Is there an authority that we can trust?
Just like the children know that the answer in the children’s sermon is always “Jesus,” you’ve probably guessed that I’m going to say that the answer to that question is that we can trust Jesus’ authority. But as long as we’re asking questions, that’s not going to satisfy you. I think it’s why Jesus tells the parable that follows, to explain to his followers exactly what it means for him–and God–to have authority.
It’s a story about two sons whose father sends them to work in the vineyard. The first son says he’s not going to go and then goes anyway. The second son says he’s going to go, but then doesn’t. “Which one,” Jesus asks, “did the will of his father?” It’s not a trick question and the chief priests and elders guess correctly; the first one. He leaves us believing that the moral of the story is that actions speak louder than words.
But what if actions and words actually overlapped for once?
What if authority meant doing what you say you’re going to do in way that builds trust. Hmm. That’s the new concept I think Jesus was introducing. That the injustice of the sacrificial system doesn’t correspond to a loving God. Instead, Jesus’ behavior reflected the things he preached and taught. He didn’t say one thing and do another. He preached about God’s mercy and then showed such mercy through his actions–yes, actions that eventually got him killed. Now can you see how we might trust in Jesus’ authority?
The church receives a lot of criticism today for being hypocritical, and as a result has lost a lot of its authority. Our actions, critics say, don’t match our words, and vice versa. We have not escaped the questioning. You’ve seen this happen; I’ve seen it happen. I’ve even questioned the church at times. You’ve also seen the symptoms of this. Thirty years ago, Sunday mornings were sacred–there were no sports events scheduled on Sunday mornings. Wednesday evenings were sacred as well because everyone went to church on Wednesday nights, too. I’m not suggesting that we should go back to the thirty years. I’m just saying that the reality is that to claim the authority of the church doesn’t mean as much anymore to an increasingly secular society.
Some people say this makes it a tough time to be the church. I say it’s an exciting time, though, because it means that we move away from emphasizing human authority, and truly freed to return to the way Jesus did things, which was by saying what he meant and by doing what he said. Though our human authority will always be less than perfect, it does carve out a space for our congregation and our emphasis on love and hospitality.
In a world and doubts and disappointing authority, there is room for us to practice what we preach, believing it’s also the way Jesus practiced and preached.
*Hample, Stuart and Eric Marshall. Children’s Letters to God. New York: Workman Publishing, 1991.