After Jesus had knocked over the tables of the money-changers in the temple and cursed a tree, the chief priests and elders wanted to know: “By what authority are You doing these things? And more importantly, who gave You this authority?”
Jesus didn’t have a degree from an accredited college; no recognized ordination; no church building experience; and no clerical clothing. Jesus wasn’t authorized – or handcuffed – by denominational authorities and traditions. Without the traditional trappings of religious authority, it was easy for the leaders to question him.
But did Jesus, and does he still, also operate outside of any human restrictions and boundaries? And how can we tell the difference between heavenly and human authority?
In Matthew 21:25 Jesus answered the Pharisee’s question with another question, “The baptism of John, where was it from? From heaven or from men?” It was a tricky question, and the religious leaders struggled to find an answer that would satisfy everyone. But that wasn’t easy to do. Does heaven’s authority come from ordination from some specific group? Does it come from the way we perform baptism? Or from the habits and patterns we use for worship? Or is it something else?
The Church is a mixture of human and divine authority. Human authority has the potential to become simply an outward show that’s a slave to church politics rather than the will of God. Historically, religious leaders have sometimes abused others with church or temple taxes and other heavy burdens. Unfortunately, it’s happened more often than any of us would like to admit.
But what Jesus was focusing on wasn’t the authority of men, but the freedom of heavenly rule. We cooperate with faulty human authority for the sake of unity; but we submit ourselves to a heavenly authority.
The religious leaders in this part of Matthew’s gospel were looking for a politically correct answer. They were stumped, because they didn’t want to be forced to give the obvious answer: that the source of Jesus’ authority was the same as John the Baptist’s. The source of Jesus’ authority was God. Although they knew where his authority came from, they just couldn’t bear to admit it. So rather than admit what they knew to be true, they tried to hide behind tricky questions.
But Jesus refused to be trapped. Instead, he told them a parable that condemned his questioners as merely putting on a show, without doing the will of God.
There’s something about the person who dares to be politically or even socially incorrect that’s refreshing. And it’s something that people today are hungry for.
So, will you choose to be like Jesus and follow where God wants to lead you in spite of the obstacles? Only you can answer that, because it is, and always will be, one of those tricky questions.