On Divine Authority

Sermon on Matthew 21:23-32

In this Gospel passage, the Jewish leaders are challenging the authority of Jesus, and so I want to take a step back and see what motivated this challenge. Earlier in the chapter of Matthew, we see Jesus doing two audacious things that really caught the attention of the religious leaders: Jesus entered the city of Jerusalem riding a donkey’s colt, and then Jesus cleansed the temple of the moneychangers. Both of these dramatic actions would definitely have caught the attention of the chief priests and elders.

By entering the city of Jerusalem triumphantly on the colt of a donkey, Jesus was declaring himself to be the prophesied Messiah. This action spoke volumes to the Jewish leaders.

But then by overturning the tables of the moneychangers and declaring that he was cleansing his Father’s house, he was condemning the leadership of the chief priests.

They of course took offense at this and challenged by what authority he was doing such audacious things. When confronted by these people, Jesus knew their hearts. He knew they were not interested in getting to know who he really was, but rather they were hostile and trying to trap and disprove him.

Jesus’ previous actions already clearly displayed his answer to their challenge… By entering the city in the prophesied manner, he was openly claiming to have Messianic authority. Then, by his words “my Father’s house” at the cleansing of the temple, he was openly claiming to have the authority of the Son of God.

However, rather than answering their question with words, Jesus instead had a challenging question to return to the Jewish leaders. He asked them about the baptism of John the Baptist, and they instantly recognized this as the same kind of trap they had been trying to set for him. They knew there was no right answer to the question – no matter what they said, they would lose. So in the typical fashion of politicians, they refused to answer the question.

When it came to the matter of authority, the chief priests and elders did have positional authority in the temple, the same way that I do as a priest of the church. And who gave them that authority? Firstly, they gained access to the authority by genetics, simply as descendants of Levi. Secondly, the elders and the high priest would have been chosen into those offices by the people. This made them political, acknowledging that they must give account to the people who elected them into their offices.

This is not so with Jesus. He was not elected as Messiah by the people, but rather he was ordained by God. So whether any person chooses to submit to him or listen to him, his authority stands.

When both Jesus and the Jewish leaders came to a stand-off, both refusing to answer each other’s questions, Jesus proceeded to tell a parable to make his point. He told the story of two sons. The father tells both his sons to go work in the vineyard. The first son immediately refuses, but later, he changes his mind, repents of his disrespect, and goes to do what his father asked him to do. On the other hand, the second son lies to his father’s face. He says, “Sure, Dad, I’ll go do it,” but then doesn’t do it. Which is worse? As a father myself, I can vouch that I’d rather have the first kind of child who at least deals honestly with me than the second who just lies to me and I never see their true heart.

By telling this story, Jesus put his finger on exactly what these religious leaders were all about. They were all talk, but their heart wasn’t in it. He could see that they were full of false words, but they were never going to truly obey and love God.

And in the same way that Jesus could see directly into the hearts of these religious leaders, we must also recognize that Jesus sees our hearts, too. We can’t fool him with false words of devotion, when we are truly living only for ourselves. We must give him our hearts, minds, souls, and bodies as living sacrifices. God knows that the default position of all humankind is rebellion, stubbornness, and hard-heartedness. Bring all of that honestly to the Lord, and lay it before him. He would much rather deal with your rebellion than your hypocrisy.