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Preaching Matthew 21:23-32


This week’s Gospel text is marked by yet another confrontation between Jesus and the religious authorities. On the one side, we have the chief priests, scribes, and elders on their home turf inside the temple in Jerusalem. On the other side, there is Jesus of Nazareth, a controversial teacher and prophet from the backwaters of Galilee who appears to have neither the education nor the status as these leaders do. The issue at stake is Jesus’ authority. The religious leaders want to know from Jesus: What are your credentials? What gives you the right to come in here and say and do what you do? Their questions follow Jesus’ earlier appearance in the temple when he drove out the merchants in the temple, overturned the tables of the money changers, and brought healing to the blind and lame who approached him, all the while children in the temple continued their song in praise of Jesus that marked his earlier entry into Jerusalem: “Hosanna to the Son of David” (Mt 21:12-16).
In good rabbinic fashion, Jesus responds to their question by posing a question of his own, a savvy response to be sure. If Jesus were to respond by asking them the same question about the nature of their authority, each group would have a solid answer ready to go. The chief priests could have pointed to their consecration according to the Jewish priestly tradition that went all the way back to Moses and Aaron. For the scribes the source of their authority is their knowledge of scripture and its proper interpretation. The elders could have pointed to the wisdom they have acquired over years of experience that is recognized by the greater community.
But Jesus has no interest in comparing credentials or competing for status. Rather he asks a pointed question: “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” (v. 25). This flashback to John the Baptist seems to have caught these religious leaders off-guard, and they scramble to find the right answer.
Back when John the Baptist was preaching a message of repentance and the coming kingdom of God, some among these religious authorities had gone out to the wilderness near the Jordan to hear John preach and teach. In the end they dismissed his message and noted his eventual arrest and death at the hands of Herod. They didn’t think much of John’s authority, but now this Jesus puts the question to them and they stumble and fumble around–showing us that their authority and power aren’t as rock-solid as they think. Out of concern for how the crowds would perceive their response to the question of John’s authority, they choose to say nothing (“We do not know.”). So much for their knowledge.  
Frankly, these religious authorities seem afraid to give an answer because what is at stake for them is their standing and privilege within the religious life. Fearfully protective of their status and privilege, they have no response. They are fearful of the truth that may force them to relinquish their prestige, wealth, and power.
Human nature hasn’t changed much. Anytime the status quo is challenged, those with the most to lose dig in their heels and ready themselves to protect whatever privilege and authority they have. Whether our authority is located within an institution or the autonomous self, we don’t take kindly to anyone who challenges us to rethink the true nature of power and authority, even if it is our professed Lord and Savior. If the preacher chooses to take the text’s invitation in this direction, it might be worth asking, what structures and powers in our context are in need of being challenged? What hard questions might Jesus be asking us? What allegiances do we have that are preventing us from submitting to the authority of the Almighty?
It is possible that the religious leaders of Jesus’ day were simply not able to recognize that Jesus’ authority comes from God because of the form his authority takes. Jesus was one who ate with tax-collectors and sinners, who welcomed the little ones, the children, who healed the sick, the blind, and the lame. Jesus came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many. Ultimately Jesus was betrayed, rejected, subjected to crucifixion, and yet continued to offer life-giving words of forgiveness even while dying. Are we prone to similar oversights?
In the end, Jesus’ authority and power don’t rest upon the honorific titles people place upon him or even upon his status as the Messiah, the Son of God.  Ultimately, Jesus reveals his true authority and power by becoming God’s servant to us in love.  
The challenge Jesus poses for us all, whether we identify ourselves as authorities (religious or otherwise) or as individuals subject to no one, is that we are all called to use our gifts and positions in life to serve others. We exist for the sake of welcoming, loving, and serving God’s people. This is the model of leadership and is the mark of true authority that Jesus brings. These are the ways we are called to go and work in the vineyard of God’s kingdom. The heart of the Christian faith is not about our status in life, or finding spiritual self-satisfaction, or accumulating great wealth and power.  Rather, it is the life we have in Jesus Christ, a life lived in the service of others and a life lived in love.
At the end of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus bestows this kind of authority upon his disciples by sending them and us out in the world to teach, to baptize, and to live the way of Jesus (Mt 28:18-19). Jesus is calling us to go work in the vineyard alongside this motley group of disciples, tax collectors, and prostitutes (Mt 21:28-32).  How will we respond to Jesus’ authority and his claim on our lives?

The Rev. Laura J. Thelander, Ph.D.

                   

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