Text: Matthew 21:23-27 W 20th Sunday after Pentecost
A Question of Authority
In the name of him before whom every knee shall bend and every head bow low, dear friends in Christ: I’m sure you will agree with me when I say that there are some people just don’t seem to get it. I’m talking about those who for some strange reason don’t seem to understand that there exists in all facets of life a certain established order, a chain of command, if you will, a system of limits and boundaries that define very clearly what is each person’s area of oversight and responsibility and what is not. Be it at home, in your place in the family, in your job at work or in school, or in your assigned role in other organizations, you know what decisions belong to you and to your discretion and which do not; and most of us would never dream of overstepping those boundaries in order dictate to someone else what they should be doing when it comes to the decisions and areas of responsibility that belong to them alone. We might offer a little helpful advice now and then; but even so, we’d want to be very careful not to overdo it.
But like I said, some people just don’t get it. They’re the ones who feel they must impose their will upon others. They’re not satisfied just looking over their own affairs but also feel compelled to invade the realm of others and issue what amount to commands about things that really don’t concern them at all. Just the other day I was buying toothpaste at Wal-Mart. They’ve got a whole isle of it with at least a hundred choices. As I made a selection and placed it in my shopping basket, a perfect stranger said to me, “I can’t believe you’re buying that brand! I prefer this one; you should buy it instead.” I confess I was at a loss for words. If I’d been clever I might have pointed out that they should thank me for by buying the brand I did because by doing so it was more likely that their own favorite would be waiting there on the shelf when next they needed it. Or I might have been thoughtful and in Christian kindness offered a creative suggestion about what they could do with their favorite brand of toothpaste and their unsolicited opinion of it. As it was I merely shook my head and resumed my business – which is the point: it was my business not theirs.
And none of us likes having our business encroached upon, which is why there’s a long list of stock phrases for telling that kind of person to mind their own business, like: “Who do you think you are ordering me around?” Or “What gives you the right to tell me how to raise my kids, or what kind of car I should drive, or which color to paint my house, or whatever?” Or “You’re not my boss. Where do you get off telling me how to do my job?” and “When I want your opinion, I’ll ask for it” and “Why should I listen to you? Are you an expert or something?” Yes, there’re lots of ways to say it; including the old and perennial favorite: “Who died and made you king?” All of these are ways of telling someone that they’ve crossed the line and that they’re imposing themselves where they’re not welcome.
And the reason I mention them is because it’s
the same message conveyed to Jesus by the chief priests of the temple and the
political elders of
Now, today, Jesus had returned to the
The other thing that galls them is
that Jesus is so popular with the crowd.
Here they are: the experts. They are learned men who have studied their whole
lives to be teachers of the law. They’ve
worked hard to be the best of the best – that’s how they’ve earned their place
among the scholars in the
They come up with the question of
authority. It’s something everyone in
the crowd will understand and be able to relate to. It’s also something that Jesus, if he is
indeed the law and order guy he claims to be, will have to acknowledge. We are in charge of the
Their official delegation pushes through the crowd gathered around Jesus to confront him. And from their point of view, it’s a win – win situation. If when asked about the source of his authority Jesus says, “I do this on my own accord”, they can politely ask him to leave; and if he refuses, they could force him out or arrest him. On the other hand, if he says he’s been sent by God, they could bring him up on charges of blasphemy. “How is it that the Lord spoke to you about doing all these things and didn’t bother to mention it to us, the very people he’s appointed through proper channels to be in charge?”
So, they put the question to Jesus: “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” It’s a tense moment. This is a power struggle, pure and simple. And everyone there realizes what’s at stake.
But have you ever noticed how often Jesus answers a question with a question? And have you noticed how his questions usually defuse the polemic grenades his enemies toss his way? In reply, Jesus says, “That’s a good question you’ve put to me. And I’m willing to answer it; but first I’d like you to answer one of mine. The Baptism of John, from where did it come? Was it from heaven or from men?”
Again, it’s a question of
authority. Did John take it upon himself
to begin his ministry of calling people to repentance and baptizing them, or
was he commissioned by God for the task?
And there’s probably more truth in
that reply than they’d care to admit; but what I’d have you see is that by
asking this question Jesus reveals the fiction of their supposed
authority. They have been imagining that
they are the experts in charge; but when asked to render an expert,
authoritative judgment on a spiritual matter – the very thing they have been
placed in authority to do – they can’t do it.
Fear of being exposed as hypocrites on one hand, or on the other, fear
of losing popularity with the masses, paralyzes them. It proves that they aren’t really in charge like
they think they are but are in fact being controlled by other forces. To be specific they are being controlled by
their fear, their pride, their greed, their jealousy … these things are their
masters – or in a word: sin. It’s
granted them the illusion of being in control.
It’s deceived them with the image of having authority. But now Jesus shows what’s really directing
affairs in the
And that, of course, is why he’s come: to set things right. He’s here to reestablish the authority of the Lord in the Temple. And as we’ve seen, he does it with a three prong attack. He drives out what doesn’t belong, he heals what’s diseased and broken, and he teaches God’s Word. And what impels him is his all consuming zeal for God’s house and his infinite love for God’s people; not greed, jealousy, or pride, and certainly not fear, for if he’d been afraid of anything, knowing as he did what would happen to him in just four days, this is the last place on earth he’d be.
Jesus didn’t answer his enemies’
question about his authority and who gave it to him. The crowd with Jesus had given the answer the
day before when they said, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the
Lord.” But for his own part, Jesus didn’t
need to answer because his actions spoke louder than words. And of course from our perspective as
Christians, we see how foolish the question was. I mean, if the Lord Jesus is not in charge of
As believers in him, we are the
beneficiaries of his sacrifice. He
purchased and won us from sin and death with the holy, precious blood he shed
on our behalf. And by the indwelling of
his Spirit he has made each one of us his
I mentioned at the outset that there
are people who just don’t seem to get it.
They try to force their will upon others. The leaders of the
It’s certainly the wrong question to ask
Jesus because you already know the answer.
And really, it’s the wrong way to think about it. If we acknowledge that we are indeed
…Our bodies both as individuals and also collectively in this Church which is the body of Christ. Just as we must come to see that these bodies don’t belong to us, we must see also that this Church and its teachings and practices are not ours to do with as we please. They belong to Jesus. His is the only Word with authority here; but sadly, not everyone sees it that way. A couple of weeks ago I read an article in the paper written by a local pastor. He mentioned how much he enjoyed having people from different perspectives come to his Bible studies: atheists, agnostics, adherents of different religions, he welcomed them all because he said he enjoyed the stimulating conversation and the sharing of diverse ideas. The only one he said he wouldn’t welcome was someone with what he called “an authoritarian agenda” – by which I’m sure he meant a person who took a stand on God’s Word and knew what he believed, why he believed it, and who was unwilling to compromise the truth. Now, I don’t imagine he meant to say so, but that would mean Jesus would not be welcome at his Bible studies because certainly he has an authoritarian agenda. I’m all for sharing ideas and stimulating discourse; but in the end every human thought and opinion must be captive to the Word and the authority of Jesus Christ. And we do well to remember this in everything we do together here as his Church.
It all comes down to a question of authority: Who’s in charge in your life? Who has the authority in the Church? May God our Father keep us steadfast in his Word so that in all things we may honor Jesus Christ, and by our words and actions crown him Lord of all. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Soli Deo Gloria!