By What Authority?


Matthew 21:23-32

It has already been a tough week for Jesus. He is in Jerusalem; it is the last week of his life. He’s already tipped over the tables of the money changers, and cursed a fig tree into oblivion, and it is only Monday. And now, he’s gone into the temple to teach, and he’s been accosted by some religious leaders. The chief priests and the elders have arrived, and their question for Jesus is basically, what are you doing here? How dare you come in to this holy place, you are an intruder! You don’t belong here. After yesterday’s violence against our money changers we don’t want you around!

Now that’s not exactly what they said. I’m sure it’s pretty close to what they were thinking, but it isn’t exactly what they said. What they said was, in my best Thurston Howell the Third voice, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” It is a question that implies that Jesus has no authority; that he shouldn’t be doing what he’s doing, and that the chief priests and elders would just as soon that he go somewhere else to do whatever it is that he’s doing. At very worst, given what the chief priests and elders already think about Jesus, the question implies that Jesus is demonically driven rather than divinely inspired. On more than one occasion Jesus has been accused of being a demon, or of being possessed by a demon. It hardly seems right that a man who went about doing so much good could be so badly maligned. But let’s keep in mind that Jesus so irritated the community of religious leaders that they ultimately had him executed. You can’t execute somebody you’re not willing to malign.

And so what we’ve got here then is a question of origins. Where do you come from lad, who’s backing you, where do you get your stuff, is it divine or is it demonic? By what authority?

Now, of course, it would have done no good at all for Jesus to have pulled off some sort of flashy miracle in front of these guys, and say, my source is divine guys, you’ve been watching me very closely for three years now, what did you think? Jesus could have done that but it wouldn’t have helped. It wouldn’t have accomplished much. Instead, Jesus has a trick question for them.

So guys, you want to know about origins, do you, you want to know whether I’m divinely empowered or demonically enabled, I’ve got a question for you! You answer my question, I’ll answer yours! This question is about origins too. John’s Baptism, John’s, ministry: where did that come from? Did it come down out of heaven, or did it just spring up from the dust under our feet? Did John hear from God, or did he hear from himself?

Now that’s a poser. It is a very good question. It doesn’t have the broad range of origins imagined earlier, that spanned the entire space between heaven and hell, this one’s more local. It’s just heaven and earth. It doesn’t make it all the way down to hell. But it is a tough question, and the chief priests and elders know it. And unfortunately all that they can do, to save face, is to plead ignorance. And that’s a bad choice for folks who fancy themselves as scholars and experts.

But Jesus has got them right by the fringes of their prayer shawls. If they say that John the Baptist was divinely inspired, Jesus can justifiably say, Well, If John heard from heaven, why didn’t you listen to what he had to say, why didn’t you respond to his message, why didn’t you acknowledge that John’s ministry consistently pointed to me, and prepared the way for my ministry? Why haven’t you listened to me? What are you missing?

And so to say that John’s ministry came from heaven is not a good answer. It’s not a safe answer. It will rock the very foundations of the chief priests and elder’s disbelief in Jesus, and that won’t do at all. In their minds, they need to keep disbelieving, in spite of all of the evidence to the contrary. Disbelief is essential to them. It is essential to lots of other folks too, in spite of all that they’ve seen and heard. Disbelief persists in those who need to disbelieve.

So there’s the other option: this option says that John’s been listening only to himself, that he likes the sound of his own voice, and so he’s out there spouting off in the wilderness like a lunatic, yammering on about trees getting chopped down, a coming kingdom, and a baptism fire.

Now, really, this is not a bad option. John was a tad on the “different” side, he said some strange things, he dressed like a crazy man, his diet made him seem like he was a bit off the grid, and so maybe John was a little disconnected, maybe his thoughts came from no higher than the soles of his sandals. He was certainly a radical.

But, as much as the chief priests and elders want to lay hold of this second option, they know they can’t do it. In spite of the fact that they really want to believe that John was all fluff and no substance, they can’t say it out loud. But they can’t say it for a really lame reason: they’re afraid of what the people will think! C’mon guys, you’re the religious leaders of your day! You’re the ones who are supposed to be so closely connected to God that you can speak with divinely inspired authority. You guys can say “Thus says the Lord”, and know it and mean it! You can preach with certainty and with power! You know the Scriptures! If you believe that John the Baptist was a fake, say so, get it out there, speak it with conviction, don’t be afraid of what the people will think of you, this isn’t a public opinion poll, this isn’t a popularity contest, this is a question of origins! If you’re so nicely connected with God, speak for God…say that John the Baptist was a fake.

And so suddenly, the question about origins isn’t about Jesus, any more and it isn’t about John at all! It’s now about the chief priests and the elders and they’ve just demonstrated that they have no authority at all. They’re dead in the water and they know it. If they do have divinely inspired origins they certainly don’t dare to demonstrate it. Jesus is pretty good at what he does. He took a question about his own authority, turned it into a question about John the Baptist’s authority, and then masterfully morphed it into a statement, from the very lips of the chief priests and elders that they have no real authority at all. Not a bad turn of events. It’s almost anti-climatic for us to hear Jesus say, well guys, if you can’t answer my question, then I’m sure not going to answer yours. By the time that Jesus says that, the answers are already in, and the judgment has been passed. It’s all over.

But surprisingly, Jesus does answer their question. I don’t know if Jesus thought that the chief priests and elders were especially dense, or if Jesus imagined that one day all of us would be a little bit dense, and so we have this story of the dad and the two sons.

Dad goes to son number one, and says, head for the vineyard today, I need your help. Son number one says, no way, man, my day is planned, and it doesn’t include you, or your vineyard. It may surprise some of us to learn that in the first century, that son number one’s response to his father is considered to be culturally shocking. Apparently, no son would dare to treat his father in such a way. And all the fathers present say, hah! Well, even though there are Ten Commandment issues at stake here, son number one’s response doesn’t sound so unusual to me. I am a parent myself. And so being rebuffed, dad goes to son number two, and says, head for the vineyard today, I need your help. And son number two says, you bet, yes sir, I’m on it, I’m on my way, you can count on me. It is a pleasure to serve you, dad.

But, things change. Son number one has a bit of an epiphany, and he changes his mind, he has a change of heart, too, and he goes out into the vineyard to work, ultimately obeying his father, in spite of his initial and adamant refusal.

Son number two, on the other hand, has no change of heart at all. In spite of his initial positive response to his dad, he remains a fraud and a liar. He had no intention of going into the vineyard; he gladly lied to his father, and he remained steadfast in his position.

Son number one, then, represents those who at first say “no” to God, but who later have a change of heart. Jesus strongly implies in his answer to the chief priests and the elders, that the change of heart came about as the result of John’s teaching and preaching. Today, that change of heart comes about as the result of the proclamation of the gospel. And it turns out that the gospel attracts some pretty unlikely folks: tax collectors and prostitutes; bottom of the barrel kinds of people who hear the message of heaven and who respond to it. As it turns out, the kingdom of heaven is tax collectors and prostitutes, and not chief priests and elders. The chief priests and elders are playing the rule of son number two, who had lots of nice things to say, but who was a fraud and liar, and who had no intentions whatsoever of doing his father’s will.

In fact, the chief priests and the elders receive an even harsher sentence from Jesus because they saw stuff that should have changed their lives, but it had no effect on them at all. The chief priests and the elders witnessed John the Baptist’s ministry. They saw the miracle of changed lives. They saw broken people being made whole, but they remained steadfast in their disbelief. And now, on top of all of that, the chief priests and elders have witnessed nearly the entirety of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus has only five days left to live. And so the chief priests and elders have seen the same thing in Jesus; lives changed by the power of the gospel. And still, no response, no changed heart, no transformed mind, just stubbornness and a few silly questions about authority. Let’s not be like that. Let’s be changed, transformed, energized and empowered by the Gospel. And let us proclaim it with all of the authority of heaven!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s