“By the authority vested in me…” We hear these words at weddings, or movie or television weddings. The phrase means that some other power has assigned power to preside at weddings in an official capacity. The officiant has the POWER and AUTHORITY to pronounce that a couple are now married in the eyes of the government, the vesting authority. In today’s scriptures we see authority that is VESTED in Jesus, but is being questioned by religious officials – because they think they are the vesting authority. There is much to be learned here – listen in.
1. Authority over sins?
We look for healing in a variety of ways over the course of our lifetime. As children, we take our “owies” to our parents for bandages and kisses – and we are healed, more or less. As young adults, we take our broken hearts to our friends to listen and commiserate – and we are healed, more or less. As adults we broaden our search for remedies from doctors, therapists and home remedies. We would welcome a practitioner who could heal with a word or a touch.
In Matthew 9 we encounter a man who is paralyzed, whose friends bring him to Jesus. He never says a word as they bring him to Jesus – just lies there powerless. Jesus sees something beyond the physical because he calls him child, teknon, in the Greek. “Take heart, child, your sins are forgiven.” The phrase is in the reverential passive, implying the mercy of God is at work, but not claiming agency.[i] Yet those words begin a firestorm of whispering among the scribes. “Who does he think he is?” they ask. They see Jesus as usurping God’s role as the forgiver of sins. (snotty tone) Who is this peasant to say anything about forgiveness when they have been studying the subject for years? They have the expert knowledge locked down, understood and under control! When someone sins, they investigate and recommend the appropriate sacrifice. There is a system! And this Galileean peasant is messing about in things he has no right to![ii]
“It isn’t the words that are the hard part,” Jesus replies, and instructs the man to get up and walk. Guilt has paralyzed him. Forgiveness frees him. Jesus says that human beings can announce God’s forgiveness, which is a sign of the coming Kingdom of God, and has been proclaimed throughout the story of God’s people. Prophets often announced God’s forgiveness – and it was never considered blasphemy. But the scribes don’t consider Jesus a prophet. They want to limit the power to forgive to religious authorities and Jesus is bucking the system! They argue that Jesus doesn’t have the authority to forgive sins. Jesus is acting by virtue of the authority, or exousia, that has been vested in him as the Son of Man. But the scribes can’t see it.[iii] Jesus reaches out to heal both the obvious, and what is hidden, with words that set this man free. And the crowds glorify God who has given such authority to human beings (9:8) asking, “Could this be the Son of David?”
2 . In the next story, a man appears before Jesus who is blind and mute through demonic possession. Jesus casts out the demon, healing the man. The Pharisees accuse Jesus of being in league with the chief of the demons. How else would he have this authority over demons?
Jesus replies, “Again you are missing the point.” How can they miss that if he is driving out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God, is breaking into the world? Jesus’ ministry points out the conflict between the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of the world – especially in the Gospel of Matthew. And yet, they ask him for a miraculous sign that God is working through him! The Pharisees, like the scribes, think that THEY are the officially approved ‘God people.’[iv](snotty tone) Anyone working outside their system can’t be one of God’s people. Jesus is practicing religion without their license, and doing it rather effectively. They resent him. They can’t celebrate the in-breaking of the kindom of God because it isn’t coming through them and in the ways that they expect! Jesus is challenging them and working outside of THEIR authority -- so he must be evil.[v]
It is hard to participate in God’s inbreaking new order of salvation if we are held captive, paralyzed even, by the resistance of the “old order.” Jesus explains that God’s new order will transcend the old with new meaning in a way that ultimately preserves both orders.[vi] But we have to be willing to see things differently. LOOK! Jesus liberates people from the effects of sin. LOOK! Jesus liberates people from the effects of evil. He overcomes everything that corrupts human existence (pause)…and brings wholeness.[vii]
n Ritual impurity – J heals woman with a hemorrhage is healed and a dead girl is raised. Wholeness. Restoration.
n Unclean spirits – people are delivered from that bondage. Wholeness. Restoration.
n Guilt and need for forgiveness – and so a paralyzed man is forgiven and free. Wholeness. Restoration.
Can you see the pattern? These are not just healings! God’s new order breaks in to set us free! God’s new order transcends gender boundaries, clean and unclean, ethnic differences and even expectations of what family looks like! Look! We can catch a glimpse right here! By what authority does Jesus do these things? By the authority of God – whose inbreaking kingdom, kindom, is seen in Jesus setting people free and making them whole!
Matthew chapters 26-27
Just when we are ready to throw a party for liberation, wholeness, healing and the defeat of evil….Jesus enters Jerusalem … and the conflict between God’s way and the way of human power builds to a horrible climax.
The crowds who shouted “Hosanna!” and waved their branches become confused. Jesus doesn’t do the things that THEY expect either. When he is arrested and appears before the Sanhedrin, the Temple leaders, Jesus doesn’t convince this kangaroo with words and signs that he is the Promised One. Far from showing the power and authority that people have come to expect, he seems powerless and silent before them. The murmuring begins… “Maybe he wasn’t the one we were waiting for…”. Before Pilate he hardly says a word. Where are his mighty acts and miracles? Who is this Jesus? What kind of king could he be? They wonder. He doesn’t speak or act as he is stripped and whipped and hauled away to die.
A meek king? Rulers tend to be confident, if not arrogant, as a rule. It’s a odd kind of authority to tolerate evil done to you rather than retaliate. It’s a different kind of confrontation to remain steadfastly silent in the face of evil. It’s a very different kind of authority. But then, Jesus is a different kind of king. God’s reign is a different kind of kingdom.
Jesus tried to explain to his followers, after all. At their last meal together, he shared a symbolic act to provide them with meaning that they hadn’t understood through words. He connects his last week with Passover, the liberating act of God that created the covenant community of faith. It’s a meal – to remind them of Jesus’ radically inclusive table fellowship – another sign of God’s kindom where everyone, no matter how public their sin, is welcome. The bread and wine represent his body and blood, about to be broken open by the powers of the day. And yet…they also point to a meal in God’s kindom, pointing to God’s final victory, which should give hope in the trying week ahead.[viii] Jesus warns them that they will stumble – all of them. Not just Judas, not just Peter. His followers will stumble just like the folks from his hometown stumbled. .. like the scribes and Pharisees stumbled. They will stumble over a Christ who would be crucified rather than retaliate.[ix] It is hard for human beings to understand. We stumble over that. But Jesus lived out what he taught – a way of non-violence – even as violence is enacted upon him.[x]
Jesus can do this for a very specific reason. He knows that the true authority and power are God’s and human actions don’t change that. He trusts in God. And that, just that, is where his final authority lies.[xi]
(Pause) For those who would follow Jesus, the question is “Will we be willing to be open to a different understanding of the presence of the sacred than we had expected?” And – are we willing to be shaped by it – by this different kind of king, with authority that shows up in meekness?
Jesus makes a claim on us, if we choose to follow him. Just like the participants in these stories, we have a decision to make. Our limitations are being removed all of the time, even without our asking. Will we, like Peter’s mother-in-law, rise up to serve Jesus? Will we, like the tax collector, reach out to share our story so others will follow Jesus? Whatever we answer will shape our identity, our commitment and our vocation – as we are invited to become healers and reconcilers in our own community. If we dare to follow Jesus, to give him authority over our lives.[xii]
[i] David Buttrick, Speaking Conflict: Stories of a Controversial Jesus. 39. [ii] David Buttrick, Speaking Conflict: Stories of a Controversial Jesus. 40. [iii] Walter Wilson, Healing Stories in the Gospel of Matthew, 149-50. He has a comparison of the Son of Man in Daniel and in Matthew. Both have the authority to carry out God’s will on earth, but in MT it includes the authority to forgive sins, which is a regular element in eschatological scenarios. In MT, the Son of Man takes the role of a Suffering Servant in the Isaiah tradition. [iv] Buttrick, Speaking Conflict, 76. [v] Buttrick, SC, 77. [vi] Wilson, 313-14. [vii] Wilson, 148. [viii] NIBC, Matthew, 460. [ix][ix] NIBC, Matthew, 474. [x] NIBC, Matthew, 477. [xi] NIBC, Matthew, 477. [xii] Wilson, 318-19.