“By What Authority?” (Matthew 21:23-32)

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The events of our Gospel reading take place on the Monday before Jesus’ crucifixion. It is the first in a series of challenges by the leaders in Jerusalem to Jesus’ authority. One day earlier Jesus had entered the city amid great celebrations and children proclaiming, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” He had cleansed the temple and then healed the blind and lame in the temple courts. So as our text begins the chief priests and the scribes were already indignant with Jesus and everything going on in the temple.

23And when he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came up to Him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Were they upset at the disruptions so close to a major holiday? Were they trying to exert their own authority in those temple courts? Or was the question just a trap? Clearly, Jesus had no authorization from the temple leaders to drive out the money changers, heal the sick, or teach. If in His answer to their question Jesus claimed a human authority, the chief priests could trump it and accuse Him of subversion; if he claimed divine authority, he was guilty of blasphemy.

Whatever the reason for their question, it was brought on by a foolish resentment. Jesus had answered both of these questions for the last three years. His miracles proved that He was the Son of God. His Words had proved to the people that His Father had sent Him to save mankind. The Jewish officials knew the answers to these questions. They didn’t like what it meant. They were not ready to recognize the authority so evidently displayed before them because then they would have to submit their lives to Him.

Is it really so very different from what you and I do? We know, for the most part, what God would have us do. Study His Word, receive His Sacraments, proclaim His Gospel to everyone, support His Church with our time, our talents, and our treasures. We know what it will cost. We know that it will be hard. But if we question His authority (did Jesus really mean all that?), or His Church’s authority (it’s all just man-made traditions isn’t it?), or the pastor’s authority (it is just his opinion after all) then we don’t have to change. We can keep living as if we were the authority in our own life.

24Jesus answered them, “I also will ask you one question, and if you tell me the answer, then I also will tell you by what authority I do these things. 25aThe baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?” They asked Jesus two questions. He asks them only one in return. Jesus lays their own trap before them. It is a principle in the OT that evil men become victims of the traps which they set for others. “From heaven” means “divine”. “From men” means “not divine”. The Jewish authorities knew the answer to Jesus’ question. But they had rejected John long before they rejected Jesus.

25bAnd they discussed it among themselves, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe Him?’ 26But if we say, ‘From man,’ we are afraid of the crowd, for they all hold that John was a prophet.” 27So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.

Now comes their third sin. They lied. They say: “We don’t know.” But they did know. Weighing their options, the chief priests and elders realized that they had fallen hopelessly into their own trap and pleaded ignorance. Their own sins of denial and their fears of the people caused them to lie. Unbelief is immoral. The unbelievers cannot deny the evidence of Scripture, but do not want to accept the truth; and therefore lies, evasion, and excuses are their only weapons.

Much like we might say we just don’t have time to give, even though we probably could. Or money to spend, neglecting to say that it is because we already spent it on more fun things first. Or when we say that we have every intention of reading that Bible, or doing more praying, or going to church more regularly, when deep down inside you know you don’t. Lies, evasion and excuses are not the sole property of others.

So Jesus presses the point with the parable of the two sons. The first son hears and rejects his father’s authority; but later, changes His mind and obeys. The second son gives lip-service to his father’s authority, but in the end shows his true stripes. The question “Which of the two did the will of His father?” was an easy one for the chief priests and elders, but they quickly found themselves in another trap. They did not listen to John the Baptist, a true prophet of God, when he came preaching the Word of God and calling for repentance. Instead, notorious sinners like tax collectors and prostitutes did … and believed His preaching. Like the first son in the parable, they changed their minds and they repented of their sins. The chief priests and elders didn’t believe even when they saw former sinners repenting and believing.

And so 31bJesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you. 32For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe Him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed Him. And even when you saw it, you did not afterward change your minds and believe Him

Jesus counters with “I tell you the truth”which always denotes His divine authority. Look again at their two questions in verse 23. Now Jesus states His divine authority with “I tell you” and makes application of their own answer. They heard what He said but did not change their minds. They saw what He did but did not believe. They would accept only their own authority, and in doing so, they rejected Jesus’ actual authority, which comes from God the father who sent him.

How sad. Because Jesus held that authority from His Father precisely for them and for us, that He might, bring us with the tax collectors and prostitutes, into the all-embracing forgiveness He won for us on the cross. He cleaned the temple so that there might be room for all to come before God. He healed the blind and the lame so they might see and rejoice. He taught so that all might understand the height and the depth and riches of His grace. He laid aside His claim to divine authority, for selfish sinners content to hold onto the lie of their own authority. Yes He did all this and more … so that you can be sure that your salvation is already accomplished, fully worked out, and freely given … all on account of His heavenly authority. So that you might lay your life in His authoritative hands, and rest secure, for now and ever more.

AMEN.

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About kenmaher

When I'm not working I enjoy Astronomy, Camping, Comic Books, Epic Fantasy Novels, Games (both playing and designing), Hiking, Juggling, Sci-fi, and building strange things out of pvc pipe. I also enjoy being an honorary pre-schooler with my four great children ... much to their mother's dismay.
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