Matthew 21:23-32 (EHV)
23 When Jesus went into the temple courts, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him while he was teaching and said, “By what authority are you doing these things?” and “Who gave you this authority?”
24 Jesus answered them, “I will also ask you one question. If you answer it, I will tell you by what authority I do these things. 25 The baptism of John, where was it from? From heaven or from men?”
They discussed it among themselves, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Then why did you not believe him?’ 26 But if we say, ‘From men,’ we are afraid of the crowd, since they all regard John as a prophet.” 27 So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.”
He said to them, “Then I will not tell you by what authority I do these things.”
28 “What do you think? A man had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go work today in my vineyard.’ 29 He answered, ‘I will not,’ but later he changed his mind and went. 30 He came to the second and said the same thing. The second son answered, ‘I will go, sir,’ but he did not go. 31 Which of the two did the will of his father?”
They said to him, “The first.”
Jesus said to them, “Amen I tell you: The tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32 For John came to you in the way of righteousness, but you did not believe him. However, the tax collectors and prostitutes did believe him. Even when you saw this, you did not change your mind and believe him.
Dear Heavenly Father, send your Holy Spirit upon us so that we may act rightly according to the authority of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
“By whose authority are you doing these things?”
“What gave you the right to do that?”
“Who says so?”
Have you ever heard these kinds of questions?
They’re questions of protest, accusation, and doubt, but they’re also words of rebellion. The person who usually asks these questions are challenging whether the other person has the right authority to do or say what they’re doing or saying. In a sense, it’s a basic question of who’s in control; who’s the boss right here, right now.
As Australians, we typically like to challenge every authority.
We like to disobey or question our parents, thinking we know better than them, after all, our parents aren’t young enough to know everything anymore! We like to see how much we can get away with at work, like attempting to fool our bosses by taking sickies on long weekends (unless of course we don’t trust anyone else and want to be self-employed). We flash our lights at oncoming traffic to ‘stick it’ to the police who may have a speed camera up ahead. We like to rubbish or lampoon our prime minister or our politicians. Basically, if anyone thinks they’re above us in any way, we’ll soon cut them down to size!
But when we do these things, we’re attempting to set ourselves up as our own authority, our own boss, or even our own little god who controls our own little world.
This isn’t a new issue. In our readings for today we see the typical human problem where humans challenge those in authority over them…and God’s response.
For example, in the first reading we hear the Israelites grumbling to, and about, their leader: Moses. There wasn’t enough water in the wilderness, and just like we do today, it’s never our fault – it’s always the leader’s fault, so he better fix the problem!
But Moses knows he’s only acting under the authority which God has given him, so therefore, whenever they complained to, or about, Moses, they were really complaining about God!
This means, whenever you complain about your parents, your boss, your prime minister, or your pastor, you’re really complaining about God who placed them in their position of authority in the first place. They don’t even have to be Christian for God to place them there, after all, even Jesus tells Pontius Pilate he recognises his authority to crucify him (or not) as it was given to him from above (Jn 19:10-11).
This means, whenever you challenge or question those whom God has placed in authority over you, you’re really challenging or questioning God’s authority, which brings us to the gospel reading for today.
What we didn’t hear is what happened before our reading. In this case, Jesus had entered Jerusalem on a donkey and overturned the marketing tables in the temple. The local authorities (such as the chief priests and elders) came to challenge Jesus by asking whose authority was he doing these things. In other words, “We’re the local authority, and we reckon you have no authority here, so you better come up with your authorised credentials quickly or you’re in big trouble!”
He, in turn, asked them a question about authority. He wanted them to answer by who’s authority had John the Baptist been baptising people? Was this authority from heaven (which meant it was authorised by God), or was it from humans (which meant it was false, unauthorised, illegitimate, and therefore possibly evil)?
Now, as the local authority experts, they had the choice to back John’s baptisms as authorised by God himself (and therefore give their theological and pastoral blessing to it). They could also reject his baptisms as false and against God’s will. Since they hadn’t acted on stopping John from baptising people earlier, you’d think they’d agree his baptisms were authorised by heaven (which many of the lay people believed it was), but they stopped short of saying this for one simple reason: fear!
Proverbs 29:25 says: ‘The fear of man lays a snare, but whoever trusts the Lord is safe.’
The local authorities were afraid of the people and their opinions. They were also afraid of getting the answer wrong. In the end, they chose not to commit themselves one way or the other.
But, by not answering Jesus’ question, they gave up their authority to say what was of God and what wasn’t. In this way they had disqualified themselves from their position of authority. As disqualified leaders who lacked the courage to trust the work of God, Jesus wouldn’t entrust these incompetent people with the answer to their question.
Similarly, when you’re afraid of what people will think of you and your faith, this means you’re too afraid to listen to, and trust, God’s authority. When you’re afraid of people, you’ve decided that they’re bigger and more powerful than God.
When you’re afraid of what people say, or think, or do to you, the opinions of others become more important to you than anything God would say to you. This means you don’t let God have the final authority and the last word on a matter. You end up letting those who you’re afraid of have the last say.
So, instead of being secure in your identity as children of God who live under the authority and protection of the Creator of heaven and earth, you listen to the opinions of others and submit yourself under their false and illegitimate authority.
In response to the chief priests and elders who were more afraid of people than of God, Jesus went on to teach these disqualified authorities through a parable of two sons – one who said ‘no’, but later obeyed his father’s authority, and the other who said ‘yes’, but then rebelled.
He compared these two sons with two groups of people – the ‘tax-collectors and prostitutes’ who will enter the kingdom of heaven, and the ‘chief priests and elders of the law’ who won’t.
One group lived rebellious lives but ended up believing in John’s and Jesus’ ministry of repentance and faith. These rebellious people repented and trusted God and his authority. They acted in accord with their faith and submitted themselves under the reign and authority of God. They were received into the kingdom of heaven.
On the other hand, the other group did and said all the right things on the surface in order to please the people around them. They seemed righteous in their own eyes and in the eyes of those around them. But they trusted the illegitimate authority of popularity and self-righteousness. Their faith didn’t lead to repentance because they had become their own boss who decided good and evil for themselves. This meant they had rejected God’s reign and authority. Because they submitted to the wrong authority (because their own self-righteous ministry wasn’t of God), they wouldn’t enter the kingdom.
“By what authority are you doing these things?”
As a called and ordained servant of the Word the pastor forgives you all your sins. In the stead of, and by the command of, Christ, the pastor forgives you as Christ’s personal and authorised ambassador.
Of course, you could believe your own opinions or thoughts which might want to challenge those words. You could believe those around you, who keep on reminding you of your failures or mistakes or regrets. You could believe your own fears which might doubt the words of forgiveness. Or you could trust that when Jesus says you’re forgiven, you’re forgiven. Jesus has the divine authority to forgive you and has passed on this heavenly privilege to his church, which is enacted through its authorised servants.
Similarly, whenever a person is baptised in accordance with Christ’s authorised command, that person is baptised with the authority of Jesus Christ Jesus himself. While you may see a pastor do this, they’re acting under the authority of Jesus. This means Jesus himself is the One who washes and claims each person as his own through these holy waters.
Likewise, every parent and godparent promises to use their God-given authority to teach a baptised person about God, and we as a congregation promise to help them with this heavenly task through our own witness and prayer. We pray each baptised person will continue to trust God has authority to do as he has promised through his word.
The authorised pastor also repeats the same words of Christ himself at the Lord’s Supper. Here again God’s word does what it says so that the bread and wine you eat and drink is also the very body and blood of Christ himself given for you for the forgiveness of sins and the strengthening of your faith.
Of course, you could believe your own opinions about this meal and think it only a symbolic or spiritual re-enactment. On the other hand, you could trust Jesus has authority to do as he says. He gives you his very own body and blood for you, which means heaven itself, in all its fullness, touches you here.
You see, it’s not just by whose authority we’re doing all these things, but how this authority is enacted.
In the reading from Philippians this morning we hear how Jesus didn’t use his authority to lord it over you and me, but he emptied himself and became a suffering servant to do his Father’s will.
He trusted and obeyed his Father’s authority by enduring the cruel cross and dying for you and me. You could say he’s unlike the sons in the parable. He never changed his mind – his answer has always been, and always will be, a ‘yes’ for you – both in intention and in action.
Jesus Christ always exercises his heavenly rule and authority according to the upside-down ways of God’s kingdom for you and me. He comes as a servant for our sake. He serves us by forgiving us, washing us clean, adopting us as his brothers and sisters, feeding us with his own body and blood, teaching us his ways, and blessing us in order that we may also serve as his own authorised humble servants wherever he’s placed us.
He’s also given us the authority to serve – to faithfully serve as a child, a parent, a citizen, or a boss – all under the authority of God. Like Christ himself, we don’t use this authority to rule or bully or belittle those around us, but to serve humbly in such a way we don’t think ourselves as better than any others. In fact, we serve as if the people we serve are better than us. Because we’re united with the suffering Servant, we don’t look for ways to serve our own interests, but we’re to always serve the interest of others.
This means, instead of thinking ‘What’s in it for me?’ you may instead think ‘How may I best serve you today?’
Don’t be like those who grumble about those in authority above them, or like those who seek to deceive out of fear, but let your ‘yes’ mean ‘yes’ and your ‘no’ mean ‘no’ as you submit yourself under the authority of God to serve each other in humbleness and grace.
Don’t fear what anyone else thinks of you. Don’t submit to the illegitimate authorities of popularity or self-righteousness. Trust in the authority of God who loves you, forgives you, and wants you to live with him forever. Trust he has authority to keep all his promises for you.
By whose authority will you do these things?
Well, what do you think?
Because it’s only the peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, which will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.