TEXTS: Matthew 21:23-32 and Philippians 2:1-13
When [Jesus] 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?” (Matthew 21:23)
You’ve heard the story. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all agree on when it happened—this interrogation, this questioning of Jesus by the religious authorities of his day. It took place not long after what we call the “Palm Sunday” event. You remember. That’s when Jesus entered Jerusalem riding on a donkey. Crowds lined the street, shouting “Hosanna!”
“Hosanna!” means “Lord, save us!” And it expressed the people’s hope. Hope that Jesus was, in fact, the long-awaited Messianic liberator.
Soon thereafter, he headed straight for the Temple. And he proceeded to do some house-cleaning. He overturned the money-changers’ tables—and scattered their animals—because the priorities of God’s people were all messed up. He turned things upside down to show how much of a mess it really was.
It was this messing around in the Temple that caused the priests and elders to ask their pointed question: “By what authority are you doing these things?”
It’s a familiar passage of Scripture, isn’t it? When I read it, I want to place myself beside Jesus as one of his disciples. I want to identify myself with him. When those religious authorities come marching up, I see myself on one side of the question. But you know, maybe I should really place myself on the other side.
After all, let’s face it; I am a modern-day “religious authority.” I’ve been a pastor for about a quarter-century now.
By the authority vested in me, I am qualified to officiate at wedding ceremonies, and legally join two people in marriage. For many years, I sat on an interview board, which examined prospective candidates for accountable ministry in my denomination. Every time that board convened, I found myself in precisely the same place of authority as the priests and elders in today’s gospel lesson.
Whether I like it or not, I’ve had the same role as those men who came to Jesus and questioned his authority.
So, looking at this encounter between Jesus and the religious hierarchy, perhaps I need to identify with them, rather than with him. Maybe we all should—we good, religious people. Maybe we should approach this story from the other side of the question. We ask the question, not someone else. And we ask it not of ourselves, but of Jesus. By what authority is Jesus doing the things he is doing in our lives?
Do we ever ask that question? Do we ask that question when what the Lord is doing is obviously working to our advantage? When we experience healing, for instance? Or get a promotion at work?
When good things happen to you, do you question Jesus’ authority?
Probably not. But, like Matthew McConaughey once said in an automobile commercial, “Maybe you should.”
Those chief priests and elders way back then … they were not just thinking about the “money-changer episode” in the Temple, when they came and questioned Jesus’ authority. No. The miracles he had performed—the healings, the great things he had done—these troubled them, also!
See, those guys weren’t stupid. They understood that the miracles and the Temple cleansing and Jesus’ teachings were all bound together into one package. It was the package deal they questioned.
When the Lord does good things in our lives, there are often larger purposes involved. When we experience some kind of healing, for instance, it may be for a reason—quite possibly one that we do not at first appreciate.
We’ve all heard people talk about how the bad things that come our way happen for a reason … right? Well, what about the good stuff?
Perhaps good things happen for a reason, too. Like helping us face difficulty in the future. Perhaps the healing is in preparation for something else.
What about forgiveness? That’s good stuff! In Christ, we may come to a deeper awareness of God’s grace and mercy. We come to understand that we have been forgiven for a great debt. And then comes Jesus’ call to forgive as we have been forgiven!
Remember that gospel lesson from two weeks ago? Peter asked Jesus, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?”
And how Jesus answered, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times [or seventy times seven]” (Matt. 18:21-22).
You may also recall these familiar words of invitation from Jesus: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28).
Jesus calls us to come and lay our burdens at the foot of the cross. What comforting words! We can let go of our sins and sorrows and regrets, and God will restore us. But then he adds the next line—which should catch us up, if we truly listen:
“Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:29-30).
Wait a minute, Lord! In one breath, you invite me to lay my burden down. In the next, you ask me to carry another. “Easy” and “light” you say, but it’s still a “yoke.”
Something good leads to a larger purpose—a calling that may consume your entire life. When you consider what taking up this yoke truly involves, might you not also question the authority behind Jesus’ call?
When you invite Christ into your life, you can expect him to do some “house-cleaning.”
He will turn your life upside down. He’ll flip your tables over, and drive out your wrong-headed ideas about what God requires of you.
We may think it’s our own little religious rituals that draw us closer to our Creator, but in reality, it is God who is drawing us to himself. Or, to look at it a different way, we usually think of “faith” as a noun, and not as a verb. But faith is active. Faith is a way of following.
When the children of Israel stood at the edge of the Red Sea and God parted the waters for their escape, was “faith” a noun? Or was it a verb? For them, believing meant stepping forward and walking out onto the seabed.
Faith is not a religious ritual. Faith is not a theological statement. Faith is an often-terrifying step in a particular direction.
“Take up my yoke,” Jesus says.
“Seventy times seven,” Jesus says.
“My house shall be called a house of prayer…” (Matt. 21:13; Isaiah 56:7).
His words and actions should give us pause, and make us ask, as did those religious authorities so long ago: “By what authority do you say and do these things?” That’s not just yesterday’s question. It’s a question for today.
The chief priests and elders knew it boiled down to two options: either Jesus’ authority was derived from the author of Creation—from God—or else it was something much less.
By the way, whenever we hear the word “authority,” we should notice the word “author” within it. Are these words and actions “authored” by God or not?
When Jesus flipped the question back on them, asking about John the Baptist, those were the two options they debated. Either John’s authority was from God, or it was just his own voice talking.
That remains the issue for us, today. Is this stuff from God or not? And if it’s from God, what are we going to do about it?
Jesus followed up this encounter with a parable—a story of a man who had a vineyard and two sons. He goes to one boy and says, “Son, go and work in the vineyard today.”
The kid says, “No, I won’t!” But later he changes his mind.
The father goes to the other boy and asks the same thing. That kid says, “Sure!” … but he never does it.
Then Jesus asks the religious leaders which son did what his father wanted—the one who first said “no,” but went ahead and did it anyway, or the one who said “yes,” but did nothing.
Of course, their answer was, “the first son.”
Those religious leaders had heard God’s call through John the Baptist—just as they had heard it through the prophets who came before him. They had said their “yes” to God, but they weren’t really doing what God had asked of them: like …
- doing justice (not just talking about it, but doing it);
- extending mercy (making forgiveness a lifestyle, not merely a ritual); and
- humbly walking with God (making faith a verb, not just a noun).*
In other words, the hard stuff.
When you listen to today’s gospel lesson as if you are the one who questions Jesus, what happens? Do you become aware of your own inner resistance to the authority of God in your life? Are you really allowing the author of Creation to write his Word on your heart?
How do we know God’s Word is written upon our hearts? When faith becomes a verb, not just a noun. When we take seriously the words of Jesus in John’s gospel: “the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these …” (John 14:12).
By what authority do we do what Jesus has called us to do? A good scripture text for that is what the apostle Paul wrote to the Philippians, when he quoted an early Christian hymn (at least, many think it is). And the hymn speaks of Jesus’ authority in a different way.
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
(Phil. 2:5-11, NRSV)
Do you see? Jesus was totally equal with God, but he released it all—he let it go—and became like us. By doing that, he did what God wanted—even though it cost him his life. Because of this, the hymn says, “… at the name of Jesus every knee should bend … and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father”
His authority was not in any crown he wore, or in any badge of honor pinned to his chest, or in any claim to fame he may have made. It was derived from his complete obedience to his Father’s will. It was etched upon his heart by God’s own hand.
His authority becomes ours when we allow this same handwriting to be etched upon our hearts and minds. Paul urged the believers in Philippi to do precisely that; and I think the Holy Spirit is urging us to do it, also—here and now.
And so, we need to ask—even as we are being asked: Where does this authority come from? Is it from God, or not? And if we say it is from God, what are we going to do about it?
* see Micah 6:8