Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost (A – Proper 21)
September 25, 2011
Text: Matt. 21:23-32
“Now just who do you think you are?!?” This is essentially what the chief priests and elders of the people are asking Jesus when they say to Him, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” (Matt. 21:23; ESV). They are trying, of course, to trap Jesus. The question is brilliant. Jesus is on their turf, or so they think. “Who gave You the authority to overturn the tables of the money-changers? Who gave You the authority to heal the sick and teach in this place?” Now, no matter how Jesus answers, the chief priests and elders think they have Him. If He names a human authority for His teaching and activities, they can remind Him that they call the shots around here. If He names God as His authority, the chief priests and elders can charge Him with blasphemy, which, of course, they do on Good Friday when He is tried before the Sanhedrin. But Jesus responds to their question with a counter question that traps them in their own trap. “The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?” (v. 25). If the chief priests and elders answer, “From heaven,” then they will have to answer for the fact that they didn’t believe his preaching, which was all about Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. If they answer, “From men,” then they have to face the people, who believe John is a prophet. It’s a lose/lose situation, so they lie and plead ignorance. “We do not know,” they say (v. 27), and Jesus responds, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.”
This is not simply an example of Jesus’ theological one-ups-man-ship over His detractors, however. This is rather an example of Jesus’ love for the chief priests and elders in calling them to repentance and faith. Jesus seeks to show the chief priests and elders the sinners that they are, so that confessing their sins, they may receive forgiveness and eternal life from THE Chief Priest, our Lord Jesus Christ, by His suffering and death and resurrection. The heart of the problem for the chief priests and elders is illustrated by the parable Jesus tells, the parable of the two sons. One son is told by his father to go and work in the vineyard, and he refuses. But later, that son goes and works anyway. The other son is told by his father to go and work in the vineyard, and he enthusiastically agrees. But then he doesn’t go. Which one does the will of his father? Obviously, the one who works. He was wrong to refuse in the beginning, but then he repents and goes. The second son’s sin is double. He not only doesn’t work, he breaks his promise to his father. The application of the parable is devastating to the self-righteous chief priests and elders. The tax collectors and prostitutes are the first son. They are sinners, but they believe John’s preaching. They confess their sins and are baptized. They look to Jesus as the sacrificial Lamb proclaimed by John, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. The chief priests and elders are the second son. They feign religiosity. They are extremely pious. They live visibly moral and upright lives. They even claim to be the teachers of Israel. But they reject John’s preaching. More to the point, they reject the Messiah sent by the very God they claim to worship. They reject Jesus, and so they reject His salvation. Tax collectors and prostitutes enter the Kingdom of God by grace alone. Chief priests and elders, with all their honor and good works, are left outside where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.
You can be very religious, and still reject God’s authority. The chief priests and elders reject God’s authority by rejecting the preaching and Baptism of the prophet John, by rejecting Jesus, the Messiah and Savior. As it turns out, it is those who make no religious pretensions, those who don’t pretend they possess moral superiority, those who come before God without presumption, those who are sinners and who know it and confess it… it is precisely these, tax collector and prostitute types, who rejoice to be under God’s authority, because by that authority their sins are forgiven, covered over by the blood of the Savior, washed away in baptismal water. The problem with chief priests and elders, with super Christians and model citizens, is not that they try to keep God’s commandments. Of course, we should all strive to do that. The problem is that they don’t recognize their sin. They don’t recognize that they break God’s commandments at every turn, that though they may lead outwardly praiseworthy lives, though they may outwardly keep the commandments, inwardly they are full of sin and death. Their hearts are not right. Their hearts are full of evil thoughts and rebellion. So are the hearts of the tax collectors and prostitutes, by the way, but the difference is that the tax collectors and prostitutes know it and confess it and ask Jesus to do something about it, namely, to forgive them and to renew in them a right spirit, to grant them His Holy Spirit.
Beloved in the Lord, you must never pretend to be who you’re not. You must never pretend that you have it all figured out, that you’re getting morally better and better every day, that you ever sin less than others or less than you did the day before. You must not be like the chief priests and elders who will not receive the Baptism of repentance from John or hear his preaching about Christ, who will not hear Christ Himself and repent of their sins, believing on Him for forgiveness and eternal salvation. You must be tax collectors and prostitutes before God, which is to say, you must be honest. You must be honest about who you are, a poor, miserable sinner, by nature sinful and unclean, having sinned against God in thought, word, and deed. Because if you can’t confess that, then you’ve rejected God’s authority. You’ve said to Him, “Just who do you think you are to tell me that I’m a sinner?!?” Because that is precisely what God tells you about yourself in His Word, the Holy Scriptures. Held to the standard of His commandments, you simply don’t measure up, and can’t. When you try to justify yourself, when you make excuses or point to your outwardly praiseworthy life or decide that certain sins are okay for you to commit, you challenge the authority of God in the same way the chief priests and elders do in our text. But when you confess your sins, when you stop pretending to be who you aren’t and simply tell it like it is to God (who already knows, anyway, so it’s not like you’ll surprise Him), then you are the tax collectors and prostitutes who joyfully walk into the Kingdom of God by grace alone, covered by the blood of Jesus Christ, redeemed children of the heavenly Father.
Just who does Jesus think He is, anyway?!? Well, who is He? He is the Son of God, the Savior. As the Son of God, the eternal Word of the Father made flesh, Jesus has all authority in heaven and on earth. Yet He exercises that authority in this way: He submits to His enemies. He suffers and dies for sinners. He suffers and dies for you. And in this suffering and dying, He asserts His authority over sin, death, the devil, and hell. They could not keep Him in the grave. They are conquered, for Christ is risen, the living Lord who bestows life, for He has life in Himself to bestow, and all authority to bestow it. His authority is from the Father, delivered by the Spirit in preaching and Baptism and Supper. This is no blasphemy. This is real, divine, powerful stuff delivered by weak and common means. It is the authority to forgive your sins, to save you, and to give you eternal life. John’s Baptism is from heaven. Jesus’ authority is from heaven. And so your Baptism is from heaven. And that claims you for heaven. Because of who Jesus is, you are who you are, and that is God’s own child, a sinner to be sure, but a redeemed, forgiven, and cleansed sinner who is now the possession of the Holy Spirit. Who does Jesus think He is? Who is He? The Son of God, your Savior.
So enough with the illusions. You are who you are, and you’ve done what you’ve done. You’re a sinner, and you’ve sinned. God knows that, and we all know it about each other. Stop pretending. Repent and believe the good news. Confess your sins and cling to the forgiveness that is yours in your crucified and risen Lord Jesus. Then rejoice. Live each day in the joy and freedom that the Lord has given you by His authority. For you don’t earn the Kingdom of God by good works or super-spirituality. You don’t earn the Kingdom of God by working in the vineyard. You receive the Kingdom of God freely, as an undeserved gift. You receive the Kingdom of God by grace alone. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.