Monday of Week 3 of Advent – Gospel

Commentary on Matthew 21:23-27

As with the First Reading, the Gospel also deals with the issue of authority. It is clear that the way Jesus used to teach was a source of disquiet among many of the Jewish religious leaders. They approach him one day in the Temple and ask him, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Jesus seldom directly answers provocative questions put to him, and in this case, as he does elsewhere, he answers with a question of his own. If they will answer his question, he will answer theirs.

His question is, “Was the baptism of John the Baptist of divine or human origin?” Immediately, his questioners are in a dilemma. If they answer “divine”, they will be further asked why they did not receive John’s baptism. We know that when John was baptising, they came to observe but they themselves clearly felt no need to be baptised themselves. To do so would have been to put themselves on the same level as the sinful and the unclean.

If they were to answer “human”, then they would run the risk of offending the people who had no doubts about the matter. They all held that “John was a prophet”. Lamely they answer, “We do not know.” So Jesus refuses to reply to their question.

Ultimately the leaders were being accused of a stubborn blindness, unable and unwilling to see the hand of God either in the mission of Jesus or of John. They could not see that the authority with which Jesus spoke clearly resided in himself. He was not just the bearer of a message – he was himself the source of the message.

Perhaps a word about “authority” may be relevant here. The word comes from the Latin auctoritas, which is itself an abstract noun from the verb augere. Augere means “to increase, make bigger”. We find the same verb in the word “author”.

A person with ‘authority’ is not just someone who wields coercive power over others. The exercise of genuine authority is not to control, to keep in line. On the contrary, it is to be an agent in releasing the potential that is in people, to be an empowering agent. Jesus did not wield coercive authority, He invited people to follow him and He came to serve not be served. He came to give life, life in its fullness. He came to lead people into the full development of all they could be and were meant to be.

He did this dramatically when he got down on his knees and washed the feet of his disciples. This was an act of authority – the authority of outreaching love. It is up to each one to decide whether to follow the way of love or to go one’s own way.

Perhaps each one of us could examine how we exercise authority in our own lives – as parents, teachers, employers, or in any capacity where we have some responsibility with regard to others. Very few of us have no authority at all.

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