(Due to technical difficulties, there is no audio podcast of this week’s sermon. Instead, you can revisit Pastor Nancy’s sermon on Matthew 21:23-32 in text form here.)
Matthew 21:23-32 (focusing on verses 23-27)
23 When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” 24 Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. 25 Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ 26 But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” 27 So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.
What is the context of this parable?
That’s the question we should ask of every passage that is pulled out from a book or letter of the Bible.
What we don’t realize when we hear, “chapter 21 of Matthew” is that we are back in Holy Week.
Jesus has ridden into Jerusalem on a donkey, causing a sizable crowd of excited followers to welcome him by throwing their coats and palm branches down before him. “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the LORD!”
Then, if you recall, Jesus enters the temple and drives out the sellers. He even overturns the tables of the folks exchanging Roman currency for Temple currency. He spends the night in the neighboring locale of Bethany then returns to the Temple the next day.
We can be pretty sure, then, that his audience consisted of his Jewish male followers & the religious authorities. (Although there was a place in the immediate outer temple for women, and outside the major portion of the Temple, a place for Gentiles, they were not likely in where he was teaching.)
We realize that in the Temple, Jesus was on the ‘turf’ of the leaders of his religion. The “chief priests and the elders of the people” is the way Matthew’s author describes it.
These leaders are likely affronted by his activism, AND a bit intimidated by the numbers of his followers.
So they use the only “weapon” available to them in these circumstances – argument! And —they ask him an argumentative question. “By what authority…are you doing these things?”
Now, these leaders feel confident because they know “their own authority in Israel had been given to them by God in the time of Moses and passed down for generations.” Therefore, if “Jesus [answers], “by God’s authority” they could easily refute him on biblical and traditional terms.”
If Jesus answers, “my own authority” it sounds like idolatry – claiming divine status while sitting in the Temple isn’t likely to be accepted by any temple audience. So, like a good rabbi, he answers a question with a question and hinges his possible answer on theirs.
(“Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?”)
Since Authority is at the center of this story, Let’s look at SOURCES of authority so we can answer the authority question when it is turned on us.
In historic tradition, we would have 2 choices for authority: the CHURCH – also called “tradition” and scripture, which may sound familiar if you recall the 16th century doctrine known as ‘sola scriptura’.
This was the great reformation debate. Where and who have ultimate religious— and therefore LIFE —authority? – since the church and government were typically one.
The reformation debate began in THE church, which we now call the Roman church or Roman Catholic Church, which you remember was the ONLY church in the Christian world at the time.
When Scriptures became more available and at least some scholars, such as Martin Luther, could study the languages, ideas beyond the doctrine of the church began to emerge.
Soon, scripture was available in common languages and all ‘heaven’ broke loose among religious factions and people.
James McClendon, Jr. is a theologian in our Anabaptist heritage and wrote a 3- volume theology that is particular to the traditions that came from the radical reformation, like the Church of the Brethren. It is both complex – as most theological writings are – and it is refreshing. – at least to me.
He points out that the 2 historical avenues of authority may no longer feel like a ‘fit’ to us:
“In many spheres [of intellectual work], authority appears no long to have a place,” he writes. “Political authority, for example is unfavorably associated with absolute monarchy, and dictatorship…on the other hand the absence of all authority is widely understood to lead to anarchy and chaos.”
A commonly proposed test of legitimate authority has been the “consent of the governed.” John Locke and Thomas Hobbes expressed this in their writings.
The simple example is, “if I do not consent, there is no authority over me; [making] ME the ultimate authority.
How does that sound? Does it sound like today’s world?
It seems to be the way of the “post-modern” world. Except in places where enforced authority and dictatorship rules the day.
We might want to simplify all this and say, “God is my authority.”
Yet that begs the question of how does one knows what God really wants?
The Brethren have phrased the search for God’s will (another way of talking about the authority question) as — “Seeking the mind of Christ.”
McClendon – again writing from this anabaptist viewpoint, posits a 3-fold authority. It will sound familiar to those who know Paul’s writing and especially his blessing, “the love of God, the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ,
the fellowship of the Spirit.”
He says LOVE is God’s interactive authority, evoking OUR love.
GRACE is God’s redemptive authority, scripture being a place where we have access to the great story of redemption. And FELLOWSHIP is God’s unitive authority. God’s Spirit is found in the worshiping community who find their fellowship with God and one another to be in spirit and in truth.
McClendon concludes his essay on authority this way, “The authorities that under God we know are the love of God enjoyed, the grace of Christ written, & the fellowship of the Spirit gathered.”
Does his summary sound like authority to you?
Jesus doesn’t give us anything so concise. Instead he brings the controversial, and now martyred, John the Baptist into the question of authority. By doing so, he compares himself to John.
Now John wasn’t viewed as any kind of authority by most of the religious leaders, but some went out to hear him. AND the people loved him.
What was the key word in John’s message? REPENT
One scholar wrote that by even mentioning John, Jesus is subtly saying, ‘John’s message doesn’t belong out in the desert alone, it belongs right HERE, in the heart of faith, in the temple’ (a rather ‘in-your-face’ unspoken commentary).
These leaders feared both men, because “Jesus’ authority, like John the Baptist has been ratified by the people who are making the Kingdom of God a reality through their good works; meanwhile, these same people have undermined the authority of those leaders who have ceased to lead them in the paths of righteousness.”
They say, “We don’t know about John’s authority” so Jesus refuses them an answer. INSTEAD, He tells this parable.
“What do you think? A man had two sons. Now he came to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’
“‘No, I don’t want to,’ he replied. But later he changed his mind and went.
“The father said the same thing to the other son, who replied, ‘Yes, sir.’ But he didn’t go.
“Which one of these two did his father’s will?”
They said, “The first one.”
Jesus said to them, “I assure you that tax collectors and prostitutes are entering God’s kingdom ahead of you. For John came to you on the righteous road, and you didn’t believe him. But tax collectors and prostitutes believed him. Yet even after you saw this, you didn’t change your hearts and lives and you didn’t believe him.
Seeking the mind of Christ is good, certainly an excellent source to choose as the authority for MY life – but – it is only as good as MY living.
If I really experience -at the center of my life -the LOVE of God, along with -Grace and -God’s Spirit in this fellowship — then, the manner of my living must demonstrate on whom I base my authority.
What does your life show to be the authority for your living?
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