And they came again to Jerusalem. And as he was walking in the temple, the chief priests and the scribes and the elders came to him, 28 and they said to him, “By what authority are you doing these things, or who gave you this authority to do them?” 29 Jesus said to them, “I will ask you a question; answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things. 30 Was the baptism of John from heaven or from men? Answer me.” 31 And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ 32 But shall we say, ‘From men’?”—they were afraid of the people, for all held that John was a real prophet. 33 So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And Jesus said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.” (Revised Standard Version)
See also: Matthew 21:23-27, Luke 20:1-8
Based on the Gospel reading for this coming Sunday (Fourth Sunday after the Holy Cross), the following are suggested themes for sermon topics:
Have you ever witnessed someone who did not necessarily or officially belong in a certain place or situation, but took over as if he or she was in charge and had been all along? Without any official title or designation they began sharing duties that are only designated for someone officially tasked for the job. How would you react? This is similar to how the chief priests, scribes, and elders reacted when Jesus not only triumphantly entered Jerusalem on a donkey (a custom reserved for kings – see Zechariah 9:9), but also when he made his way to the Temple and “cleansed” it, an event, in their view, which crossed the line. Earlier in the chapter (11:15-18), we read:
And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold and those who bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons; and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. And he taught, and said to them, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.” And the chief priests and the scribes heard it and sought a way to destroy him; for they feared him, because all the multitude was astonished at his teaching.
Jesus, according to the rulers, was usurping an already established position in the system by taking on the duties of the High Priest. No one other than God himself, or the Messiah, would have the authority and credentials to do what Jesus just did, and so the rulers of the Temple demanded him to give an explanation as to why he was challenging their authority and disrupting the system. To make their case even stronger, it was the duty of the priestly descendants of the Tribe of Levi to manage the Temple, and here was Jesus, a descendent of the Tribe of Judah doing so. Simply put, the rulers were informing Jesus they did not want him doing these things.
How Do We Answer Jesus?
Would we ever challenge Jesus? After all, we’re Christians, we’ve been baptized, we attend Badarak, we pray, we live good lives, stay out of trouble, donate money, and even help people. It’s very easy to be critical of the Pharisees, or any group we read about in the Gospels who opposed Jesus. We know, intellectually anyway, who is right. It’s always Jesus. But if we are honest with ourselves, very often we live as if we are on the side of his accusers. This shouldn’t be surprising. It’s the reason we (should) always live in a state of repentance. It is why the priest prays every week during Badarak, “And having cleansed our thoughts, make us temples fit for the reception of the Body and Blood…of Jesus Christ.” We are finite, flawed, and fickle beings. Even St. Gregory of Narek prayed, “The Pharisee should be honored when compared with my foul baseness.” (6B)
When the rulers who approach Jesus in this narrative respond to Jesus’ counter-question with, “We do not know,” they are essentially saying, “We do not believe, we do not wish to be taught, nor do we desire to see or hear the truth.” Even though Jesus told them, in a coded way, that he was the Messiah, they refused to listen. The rulers, not knowing or choosing to ignore what happened at Jesus’ baptism, refused to acknowledge that Jesus was the anointed and appointed King, the ruler of the Temple, the Lord of all creation. They were not interested in truth, rather they were looking to save their positions, to get the troublemaker out. What they had going was working well. “Jesus, please leave us alone. You’re ruining a good thing. Who let this guy in, anyway?”
Jesus’ accusers were not willing to believe in Christ, because they feared what others would think, say, or do. St. Ephrem writes,
When they said, “If it is from heaven,” they did not also say, “We are afraid of God.” They were thus afraid of human beings but not of God.
Do we also fear what others say over and above the mission of Christ? When our faith and belief is challenged or pushed out of its comfort zone, what does it look like? Is our faith alleged, or authentic and evidenced by how we live our lives? Is it obvious when someone visits our parish community? Based on someone’s first impression, are we accurately perceived as disciples of Jesus? Are we on the side of the Pharisees and claim ignorance, not ready for what Jesus came to do, not ready to believe he is who he says he is? Are we looking to keep out any radical ideas, to keep the status quo, to maintain what works, avoiding any disruption in the system, parish or otherwise?
Because if we do really believe, then it demands something from us. Jesus’ way is not the way of society. Just listen to any one of his parables, which are meant to disrupt and invert our way of thinking, living, and doing things. When it comes to love, success, happiness, suffering, mercy – all of these things are redefined within the paradigm Jesus inaugurated, with him at the center. Do we really want Jesus to enter into our lives, to cleanse our temples which have been endowed with the Holy Spirit at baptism? Are we willing to allow him to take charge, disrupt our agendas, change us, rearrange our priorities, and humiliate our egos? From the Epistle reading for this Sunday, St. Paul writes to the Church in Corinth,
Examine yourselves, to see whether you are holding to your faith. Test yourselves. Do you not realize that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test! (II Corinthians 13:5)
Do we want Jesus to be King? Are we ready for him to be the Messiah? Do we try to rewrite the mission and agenda of the Church to suit our own desires, hobbies, interests, causes, what we believe to be important to us as Armenian Christians? Or are we, like those around him in the Temple, astonished at his teaching, listening to and applying his every word? Although Christ descended from Judah (Luke 3:33), he is our High Priest “according to the order of Melchizedek” (Ps 110:4, Hebrews 7:17, 5:8-10), and his authority as Priest comes from the Father. During the singing of Հրեշտակային and the procession around the altar with the chalice, the priest prays the following which speaks of the authority of Jesus Christ in our lives and in the life of the Church:
None of us who are bound by carnal passions and desires is worthy to approach your table or to minister to your royal glory; for to serve you is great and fearful even to the heavenly hosts. Yet through your immeasurable goodness, you, infinite Word of the Father, did become man and did appear as our high-priest; and as the Lord of all did commit to us the ministry of this priesthood and this bloodless sacrifice. For you are our Lord God, who rule over those who are of heaven and those who are of earth; who sit upon the cherubic throne, Lord of the seraphim and king of Israel; who alone are holy and dwell in the saints. (24)
To serve God is to fear him with awe and wonder, knowing our place as creatures in communion with our loving Creator, our High-Priest and ruler over heaven and earth. If we are not living as if God has authority in our lives, then we are living by our own authority, and the Bible over and over again warns us about asserting the self above God. Even if it seems like a good life from our perspective, leading an autonomous life leads to destruction and death. It is simply not how we were intentionally created to live. As individuals, as families, as a parish community, and a global Church, may our response to Jesus not be similar to that of the rulers who wanted to maintain status quo, but may our lives be marked as living under the authority of Jesus Christ, ready for whatever he may disrupt for the sake of the Church, for the sake of communion with God and with one another.
Authority at Jesus’ Baptism
Why did Jesus counter their question with a reference to John’s baptism? By doing so, Jesus wasn’t merely attempting to silence them, but actually answered the question they were asking. How often Jesus invited those who had ears to let them hear. When Jesus was baptized by John he was anointed as Messiah, at that moment given the right and authority to teach, perform miracles, and manage the Temple. At his baptism, considered a Theophany, a manifestation of who Jesus is (not became), the Holy Spirit descended on the Son and the Father uttered the words, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” It is no question that the baptism of John was from heaven.
Furthermore, Jesus affirmed John the Baptizer as a true prophet (Matthew 11:9), and what did this true prophet say about Jesus? That he is the Coming One, the true King, the one for whom Israel was waiting, their Messiah. St. John Chrysostom reminds us,
For of him John had said, “I am not worthy to loose the latchet of his shoe; and, “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sins of the world;” and, “This is the Son of God;” and, “He that cometh from above is above all;” and, “His fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly purge His floor.” So that if they had believed him, there was nothing to hinder them from knowing by what authority Christ doeth these things.
But the Jewish rulers rejected John as a prophet, thereby not recognizing his baptism being from heaven. And so naturally, they didn’t affirm John’s words about Jesus, nor did they recognize Jesus’ baptism as a Theophany. As a result, they rejected Jesus as Messiah (see Luke 7:29-30). Nevertheless, John the Baptist was the clue to what the rulers were asking. What was the answer to the question of the elders? That Jesus came from heaven. What was the answer to Jesus’ counter-question? The same. Therefore, Jesus has authority to teach, heal, and turn upside down anything that does not conform to his paradigm and mission in the world and in our lives.
Authority at our Baptism
The authority of Jesus extends to the Sacraments, which the Orthodox churches often refer to as Mysteries. The “Mystery” that we celebrate in the Sacraments is the reality of Jesus Christ in, with, and among us, foremost through his Incarnation, a manifestation of God’s love for his people. Note well, Jesus is the localization of everything we do as the Armenian Church, and why we do it. The day that it becomes otherwise, is the day we become a club, an institution, an organization, or a museum.
Ponder this: at our own baptism, we are equipped with the same Spirit that descended on Jesus at his baptism in the Jordan! And so we are given his authority, under his direction to live and act in his name for his purpose, for his mission, as his Church. Who do we think we are? What gives us the right? Again, we are children of God, baptized in the name of the Holy Trinity, anointed and sealed with the Holy Spirit who indwells each one of us, and guides the Church, the Body of Christ.
The priest prays the words over the person being baptized,
Redeemed by the blood of Christ from servitude to sin, he/she receives adoption as a child of the heavenly Father to be a joint-heir with Christ and a temple of the Holy Spirit.
This prayer is followed by a reading from the letter of St. Paul to the Romans:
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?…We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the sinful body might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For he who has died is freed from sin. (6:3, 6-7)
When we are anointed with holy muron, we come under the authority of Christ. Consequently, we are given authority over sin, evil, demons, and anything that tempts us from communion with God and with one another. In the Gospel of Luke we read about the Seventy-Two Holy Disciples, who the Armenian Church celebrates on the Saturday of the third week of the Cross. After he appointed them, Jesus sent them out to do the very work he was doing – to teach, preach, and heal. Luke writes,
The seventy returned with joy, saying, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!” And he said to them…”Behold, I have given you authority to tread upon serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing shall hurt you. Nevertheless do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you; but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” (Luke 10:17-20)
Do we live and work as if we have been sent out with the authority of Jesus Christ? Are people asking the Armenian Church, our parish community, “By what right do you do these things?” Our answer is that Jesus shares his authority with us, with his Body, the Church, and so to every baptized believer. At our baptism we are given all that is necessary for salvation, but it must be lived out. Our baptismal vows must become a concrete way of life. When that way of life becomes a struggle, remember the authority of Jesus Christ, the same authority he has given us to overcome every struggle and temptation that comes our way.