By Whose Authority? A Sermon on Matthew 21:23-27

the-pharisees-question-jesusSixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 28, 2014

Some people ask questions because they do not want to learn. Let me repeat that: Some ask questions because they do not want to learn and this is what we see in our text for today.

The Pharisees believed in the resurrection and that is the main thing which separated them from the Sadducees. But the Pharisees were becoming uncomfortable for they would hear in Jesus’ words that he is the resurrection and the life and no one come to the Father accept through him. For Jesus to make this claim or to imply that he is God was blasphemous for the Jews. It is also a blasphemous for Islam, Mormonism, and all other religions.

The chief priests and elders of the people were asking questions in attempt to domesticate Jesus, to tame him, to place him under their control. You know the truth that the person who asks the questions is in control of the conversation. You see this all the time with the news media and that is why an astute person will answer questions not asked in order to not be placed under control.

But to not be under Jesus’ control invites death and it is a death that continues when you have ceased to live. As Jesus tells us through Jeremiah, “O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter has done?’ declares the LORD. ‘Behold, like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel” (18:6). Unbelieving rebellious clay does not to submit to the hand and way of the potter inviting destruction.

By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” [asked the chief priests and the elders]. Jesus answered them, “I also will ask you one question, and if you tell me the answer, then I also will tell you by what authority I do these things” (Mt 21:23-24).

Out of love for their souls salvation Jesus will not go down the path they desire. They hedged their bets knowing if they said John’s baptism was from God that would mean they needed to believe John’s message. And what was John’s message regarding Christ? We confess the Baptizer’s message using his own words found in the first chapter of St. John’s Gospel which are now used in our liturgy.

“Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, because he was before me’ (Jn 1:29).

With these words John confesses the eternal nature of Christ, that is, his divinity, and that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Old Testament sacrificial system. By-far-and a-way the most common sacrifice in the Old Testament was the morning and evening sacrifice which involved a lamb. The Baptizer is saying that all four legged lambs pointed to and find their culmination in this two legged lamb standing before them—Jesus.

The chief priests and elders also knew if they denied the authority of the Baptizer they would have a riot on their hands for the people held John in high esteem. Knowing what is in the hearts of all people (Jn 2:24) Jesus did not entrust himself to the questions asked. They were being asked to put Jesus in his place, mock him or otherwise control him. Not all questions are meant for learning.

Jesus will have none of this for he came to the world to save the world. Remember what we learned from last week’s Gospel, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick” (Mt 9:12). You are here this day my friends because you confess that you are sick and need help from outside yourself. Those who continually skip church are, in their own eyes, well and are saying they have no need of a physician.

This sickness which all people have is a contagion worse than Ebola and it always ends in death. It is this contagion of sin, original sin that Jesus absorbed onto himself so that he became the host body. And our Lord allowed this contagion to infect, weaken him and draw out his blood while on the cross so your sins are forgiven. That which was meant for ill, for evil—the death of his Son on the cross—God worked for good for your salvation. Through Christ’s shed blood on the cross your sins are forgiven!

Jesus’ authority comes from the fact that Jesus is God in the flesh. This authority also comes from the heavenly Father.

  • I speak of what I have seen with my Father, (Jn 8:38).
  • I came not of my own accord, but he sent me” (Jn 8:42).
  • No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father” (Jn 10:18).

The authority of Jesus and the ability to believe on him comes not from people, society, or government. This authority to believe on Jesus and receive his gifts comes from the heavenly Father. This tension or this division in understanding runs throughout the history of the human race. Does our freedom to worship God come from the chief priests and elders? Does this freedom come from government, from people, or from God himself?

The Declaration of Independence of the United States of America says that the:

Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them…

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights…”

These words from the Declaration of Independence confess that the freedom to Worship God comes not from the elite, be it the chief priests or elders of the people or any form of Government, but from God himself. And now listen to what the First Amendment says:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof …

The First Amendment says we may engage in the free exercise of religion in the public realm. Human quests for power seek to stifle this freedom and these days we are being told the First Amendment say religious people have the free exercise of “worship” within the sanctuary walls on certain days and hours. This is altogether different from having the free exercise of “religion” in the public realm.

The chief priests and the elders of the people sought to control religion saying the freedom to worship God come from government, the elite, and not from God himself. As such tyrants of any age, whether it was Cain when he slew Able, or the Pharaohs, or Nebuchadnezzar, Hitler, Stalin or those of more recent time say you can “worship” God in your heart or during certain prescribed venues but you cannot bring your beliefs—your religion—into the public sphere.

As Christians our authority and freedom to believe our religion and believe on Christ comes from Almighty God, not from our any earthly power. Exercise that freedom my friends, respectfully and honorably as you bring your beliefs into the public market place. Share the Gospel in creative ways where you have the credibility and platform to speak based on your generous abundant, good works (Gal 6:10) so that more may be snatched from the fire (Jude 23).

Those who asked questions to control and not learn were not answered by Jesus. Our Lord is not controlled by anyone. And those who persist in hardening their hearts will be met with silence for eternity.



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