Text: Matthew 21:23-27
Date: Pentecost XV + Proper 21 + 9/25/11
Lawyers know that in court you never ask a question unless you know the answer ahead of time. Politicians, on the other hand, are expert in “spin.” I’ve always said I could never be a politician because I’m not a good liar.
It is the last week of Jesus’ life, after His triumphant entry into Jerusalem (Mt 21:1-11). The first thing He does is drive out the merchants and moneychangers from the temple, saying, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you make it a den of robbers” (Mt. 21:12-13). It is then that the chief priests and elders of the people confront Him, asking, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Less like good lawyers knowing the answer before they asked Him, they sounded more like politicians. Agreeing to Jesus’ offer that He would answer their question if they would first answer one of His, He asked them about John the Baptist. Did his baptizing ministry come from heaven or from man? Their answer is almost comical. They calculated a negative result one way or the other so they simply answered, “We don’t know.” Deal done. “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.” End of story. But not quite. Jesus did proceed to answer their question by means of a couple of parables.
Today we are going to answer this question, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” For the answer involves a clear statement, first, concerning who Jesus is and, secondly, what He came to do. And it is by faith in this answer that a person can have the certainty of salvation.
The chief priests and elders saw only a man standing there, not any different from any one of them. And indeed I can imagine that we would be shocked, or actually “underwhelmed” if Jesus would appear to us as He was then, what? maybe five-foot-ten and a hundred and twenty-five pounds. If you ever needed to be convinced Jesus was just a man, just look at Him! As the prophet Isaiah said, “he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him” (Is 53:2). Nevertheless, we heard not too long ago, the apostle Peter under the revelation and inspiration of the Holy Spirit confess Jesus to be the Christ the Son of the living God (Mt 16:16). The Evangelists Matthew and Luke reveal to us Jesus’ divine nature telling us that He was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. St. John calls Him “the Word,” the Son of God who is from the beginning, through whom all things were created. Then the Word became flesh. He is, to use our favorite phrase, the Incarnate Word; God who came down from heaven to take on our flesh, our human nature. So as God Himself there is no question concerning His authority—His authority over wind and wave and all creation; His authority over all people, all illness and even death as their Creator; His authority over the saving covenants He has made over the centuries with His people through Adam and Noah, Abraham, Moses and David and, yes, that includes His authority over His commanded dwelling place, the Jerusalem Temple and its proper use.
One of the clearest descriptions of our Lord’s divine nature is in the opening words of the letter to the Hebrews:
“Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (Heb 1:1-3). This is what the Creed means when it describes our Lord’s divine nature in the words, “begotten of His Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.”
But then we cannot speak of Jesus’ identity without also speaking of His mission and purpose, the reason why He had to take on our human flesh.
In His flesh, our flesh, He came to save us. That meant fulfilling God’s Law as a man, as one of us, and then offering His own perfection as the substitutionary sacrifice for our sin thereby clearing the way and opening the door to reconciliation with God and resurrection to the eternal, abundant life God original intended for us.
During the days of His earthly ministry (theologians call it His state of humiliation) He “made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:7-8). It began with His baptism by John by which He received, as a man, the same Spirit you and I receive in this sacrament. In the power of the Word and Spirit of God alone He was tempted by the devil who offered Him a short-cut to all earthly authority, which He faithfully rejected.
Yet even in His humility He did divine works which only God can do, healing people of their diseases, even raising the dead. But even more He had the authority on earth to forgive sins (Mt 9:6). It was said by those who heard His teaching how He taught “as one who had authority” (Mt 7:29). And when it came to His impending sacrificial death, even there He said, “I lay down my life that I may take it up again. 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” (John 10:17-18). This is also what it meant when the Evangelist St. John wrote when Jesus faced some threatening situations that “His hour had not yet come.” In John 7 we read, “they were seeking to arrest him, but no one laid a hand on him, because his hour had not yet come” (John 7:30), and in the 8th chapter, “These words he spoke in the treasury, as he taught in the temple; but no one arrested him, because his hour had not yet come” (John 8:20). Finally, however, when He was at prayer in the garden of Gethsemane,
he lifted up his eyes to heaven, and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do. And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed. (John 17:1-5)
That “glory” would be His glorious death on the cross, the same glory we proclaim every time we eat and drink the Eucharistic bread and cup of His body and blood (1 Cor 11:26).
After His death, His three-day rest in the tomb, His glorious resurrection from the dead, and after appearing to His disciples for forty days, just before His ascension to the right hand of the Majesty on high He said to His disciples, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” And His visible presence ended as He left us with the commission to teach and baptize.
By what authority did Jesus preach, teach and heal, cast out demons, calm the seas, forgive sins, bless the children and demand reverent prayer in His house of prayer? By His own authority as the Son of God. And who gave Him this authority? God His Father gave it to Him as the Incarnate Word. Now only by faith in Him, Jesus Christ, can a person know God, the only true God, and receive His gifts and blessing. Now only by faith in Him, Jesus Christ, can a person receive the forgiveness of sins, a new heart and life, and the promise of resurrection and life everlasting in the new heavens and earth. Jesus exercises His saving authority when He says “repent and believe,” when you are baptized into His name most holy, when He says, “take, eat, take, drink, this is my body, this is my blood shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” By what authority do you hope to be saved?
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit!