“Neither shall I tell you by what authority I do these things.”

Matthew 21:27

Monday, 14 December 2020

Matthew 21:23-27

In this reading, we see a Jesus with whom we are not always familiar, but actually, one who is quite common in the gospel – a Jesus who is fed up with being questioned, annoyed at being doubted and exasperated at the level of unbelief and doubt around him. In other words, a very human Jesus, a Jesus we can relate to, a Jesus who we often feel like in our tired and exhausted moments. 

The gospel passage today starts with Jesus coming into the temple area, having entered Jerusalem a few days before in triumph. He had expelled the traders and money changers from the temple the day before. The chief priests and elders approach Jesus with the question: “By whose authority are you doing these things?” It is a question uttered full of grievance, especially if they had been witnesses to the cleansing of the temple the day before. Jesus is, after all, a layman, not a priest, not a Pharisee, not even a rabbi. And yet he acts like he is the custodian of the temple. The High Priest probably should have cast out the money changers and the traders long before. The question could be rephrased today: “And just who do you think you are?”

Jesus’ reply shows that he is every bit their match. He refuses to answer, but instead throws a question their way, one which he knows will unbalance them. It is very similar to some of the trick questions they have thrown at Jesus in the past. He knows that John the Baptist had created a huge problem for the Chief Priests, elders and Pharisees because he was outside of their caste and control, and yet so many ordinary people flocked to him. So he poses the challenge about John, and they cannot answer it. They avoid the issue. Jesus refuses to play their game and to answer the question they posed to him.

If we are honest, the chief priests’ question is often our question. Who do you think you are? How can you do these things? Who gave you the authority? Even if we don’t formulate the questions this way, we often ask those questions in our hearts: Jesus, who are you exactly? What do you mean to me? There’s no harm in asking the question, wrestling with it in prayer and the imagination, trying to deepen our understanding of who Jesus was and is for me. But in the end, the only answer is faith, faith in the one who made the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers cleansed, and who cast the money changers out of the temple. 

Lord Jesus,

I ask you the same question the chief priests and the elders asked, but without aggression or doubt: Who are you? Who are you for me? What do you want from me? Help me to understand the place you have in my life once I accept you fully into it. Help me to see how much change you can and will bring, and not to be afraid of it. Help me not to doubt, but to know that you will bring only good and not evil to me.


Tim Smith

Tim Smith is Regional Director for the Jesuit Refugee Service in Southern Africa, which covers Angola, Malawi, South Africa and Zimbabwe. He lives in Cape Town with his wife Shona and son Patrick.

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