Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost (A)
September 28, 2008
Text: Matt. 21:23-32
Beloved in the Lord, the question posed by the chief priests and elders of the people in this morning’s Gospel lesson is crucial. They asked Jesus, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” (Matt. 21:23; ESV). This is Tuesday of Holy Week, four days before Jesus’ crucifixion. Jesus has just triumphantly paraded into Jerusalem to the shouts of “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest” (v. 9). Jesus has just cleansed the Temple, overturning the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons, declaring, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you make it a den of robbers” (v. 13). Jesus acts like He’s God!
He receives the praises of the people. He acts like He owns the Temple. He does miracles. He teaches with divine authority. The question is crucial: By what authority does He do these things? Who gave Him such authority? What gives Jesus the right to claim this authority for Himself?
You may take it for granted that the answer to this question is obvious: God the Father gives Jesus this authority. But this answer is not obvious to the world. You see this every time the world asks questions like, “What gives the Church the authority to proclaim what is right and what is wrong? What gives the Church the authority to condemn abortion as murder? What gives the Church the authority to declare homosexuality sinful? What gives the Church the authority to declare to the rest of us that God created the heavens and the earth in six days, and that this did not come about through the process of evolution over billions of years? And above all else, what gives the Church the authority to declare that salvation is only given through Jesus Christ, that Christianity is the only true and right religion? Where does the Church get such authority?” And what the world is really asking is, “Who gave Jesus
authority over my
life?” Along with the individual freedoms we so dearly value in our society, can come a feeling of entitlement to self-rule, self-authority, or self-authorization… what is called in ethics, autonomy
. Literally, the word autonomy means a law unto one’s self
. Well, since we’ve convinced ourselves that we are autonomous, what does this Jesus guy think He’s doing intruding on our own self-authorization with what He thinks is His authority? So you see, this question posed by the chief priests and elders, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority,” is crucial for the world. And the world typically answers the question this way: Jesus has no such authority. Jesus should be silent. Jesus should stay in that box we’ve created for Him so that we can trot Him out on our own terms to prove whatever self-serving, politically correct point we want to make on any given occasion, and then He can be shut right back up in the box until next time. But rest assured that one day it will become quite clear to all people, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, that Jesus has all the authority of the Triune God to do these things. Indeed, on Judgment Day, every knee will bow, and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Phil. 2:10-11).
But even for believing Christians, this question of authority is crucial. It is crucial for you. You ought to be asking this question. By what authority does Jesus do these things? Because if Jesus is not doing these things with the authority of God, your faith is futile. How will you know, then? How will you answer this question? God will answer it for you. Look in His Word. There His Holy Spirit will testify with your spirit that His Word is truth, and Jesus is Lord. Not only is this so, but He is your Savior. He is given the authority, authorized by God
, to be so. He humbled Himself to the point of death, even death on a cross, for you
. That God has raised Him from the dead, highly exalted Him, placed Him at His own right hand, and given Him the Name that is above every Name, this is just proof positive that God Himself gave Jesus the authority to do and teach the things that He does, and most especially that God has given Jesus the authority to atone for your sins. And this is so important for you, because if Jesus really does have this authority from God (and He does!), then when He says your sins are forgiven, even if it be through a man He has authorized to say so, namely, your pastor, then your sins are, in fact, forgiven. When He covers you with His precious blood, you are redeemed. When you are washed clean in Baptism, all your sins are wiped away. When you receive the bread of life that is His body, and drink of the overflowing cup of mercy that is His blood, you receive once again forgiveness of all your sins, eternal life and salvation, and strength from the Lord to live as God’s child, in love and service to the neighbor, and to do battle with the devil, the world, and your own sinful flesh. If Jesus really does have this authority from God (and He does!), then all His promises are true
, and His authoritative Word accomplishes what it says. You are forgiven. You are saved. You have eternal life, through Christ Jesus our Lord. The authority of God makes it your reality.
When the chief priests and elders ask the question of authority, Jesus says, in essence, “I’ll make you a deal here. I’ll answer your question if first you answer mine. The baptism of John, where did it come from? From heaven or from man?” (Matt. 21:25). Now here’s the thing. If you know where Jesus gets His authority, you know where John gets the authority to baptize, and vice versa
. John and Jesus get their authority from heaven, from God. Why can’t the chief priests and elders answer this question? Because they don’t believe. They don’t believe that it is possible that Jesus gets His authority from God. And since John so clearly testified that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, the Savior of the world, the chief priests and elders do not believe John’s baptism came from God, either. But they dare not say it came from men, because the people regard John as a prophet. They would have a religious riot on their hands if they said such a thing. So they can’t answer the question. But you can. John’s baptism comes from heaven, from God. And so does Jesus’ authority.
The difficulty with the chief priests and elders is that they
are the ones acting outside their authority. They know it, and this is why they ask the question of Jesus. Oh, they did have authority. They were the teachers of Israel, the religious leaders of the people of God. But they weren’t doing what they were authorized
to do, namely, teach Israel about the Messiah, who, in fact, is standing before them in the flesh of Jesus of Nazareth. Rather, they were doing what they did not have authority to do, namely, deny Jesus, call His authority into question, slander Him, and ultimately, have Him put to death. Jesus points out the hypocrisy of these leaders by means of a parable. A man had two sons. He goes to the first and tells him to go work in his vineyard. The son says no, but then goes and does it anyway. The father goes to the second son and tells him to go work in his vineyard. The second son says, “Yes, sir!” but then fails to go and do what his father asks of him. Both sons are given authority by the father to go and work in the vineyard. They are not authorized to do anything else. Now, which son did the will of the father?
With this question, Jesus nails the chief priests and elders to the wall, for Jesus makes it very clear that they
are the second son. They give lip service to God, our heavenly Father, and the thing He has authorized them to do. But they don’t do it. And now here’s the clincher. The tax collectors and the prostitutes are the first son. It is true, they originally refuse the Father’s authorization. They don’t want to serve Him. Instead they serve sin. But then something happens. John preaches, as God has authorized him to do. John tells them to prepare the way of the Lord. The Word is effective and powerful. The tax collectors and prostitutes repent. They come to faith. They confess their sins and are baptized. They go out and work in the vineyard. They recognize Jesus as the Messiah, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. They trust in Him for forgiveness. So the tax collectors and sinners, those who believed John’s testimony and the preaching of Jesus, enter the Kingdom of God. The chief priests and elders, unless they repent, do not. So which son in the parable did the will of the father? The chief priests and elders condemn themselves when they rightly answer, “The first.” The tax collectors and sinners do the will of the Father while the chief priests and elders do not.
Now here’s the point of the parable for you. Do not be self-righteous, like the chief priests and elders. Don’t think you’re too good for God to condemn you. Don’t just pay lip service to God by creating a religious image of yourself before others, while in your heart you agree with the world, that this Jesus guy really has no authority over us, that we can do whatever we want and believe whatever we want. Rather, be like the tax collectors and prostitutes. Repent. Confess your sins. Confess that you cannot save yourself. Cast yourself on the mercy of Christ. Hide yourself in His wounds. For Jesus has come not to call the righteous, those who believe they are good enough on their own to be saved, but sinners… sinners like tax collectors and prostitutes, sinners like you and me.
And Jesus has the authority
to call us. He has all the authority of the Triune God to call us out of sin and death and hell to be His own, to follow Him, to be His disciples. Which is what it means to be a Christian. It means sitting at His feet and learning from Him, for He has the authority to be our divine Teacher. It means living not by bread alone, but by every Word that proceeds from His mouth. It means being cleansed by Him in Baptism and absolution, receiving His gifts in the Supper, for He has all authority to wash and feed us. In fact, as Jesus says, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matt. 28:18). And He is the Author
of life (Acts 3:15), and the Author
and Perfecter of our faith (Heb. 12:2). All of this is to say, Jesus receives His authority from God. He receives all His authority because He is God
. He is God in the flesh, God united with our humanity, God come to redeem humanity in His own body. So He has all the authority to say to you this morning, “Come! Come, you tax collectors and prostitutes! Come, you sinners! Come into the Kingdom prepared for you by my Father. For I have washed your sins away. You are righteous. You are clean. I have made it so at the price of my own blood.” In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.