The Unanswered Question

Text: Matthew 21:23-32
Date: Pentecost XVI Proper 21 + 9/28/14

I love this Gospel reading today for a number of reasons. One is the hidden humor of it all. The chief priests and elders of the people challenge Jesus’ credentials asking what’s His authority. Jesus decides to play a little game saying, “I’ll answer your question if you will answer mine.” “The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?” You can see these important men huddling together not so much to discuss the real answer (they know the real answer!) but only the effect or political correctness of the two choices. They’re hard pressed between their agenda and their need for people’s respect and obedience. The answer? “We don’t know!” That’s funny enough but then Jesus follows through on the deal and refuses to answer them. Well, He actually doesn’t refuse since He then tells a parable which does answer their question.

On the other hand this is not an amusing story. This is Tuesday of Holy Week. In but a few days Jesus will be executed. Today He leaves His questioning enemies hanging. Friday they will leave Him hanging.

Jesus had arrived in Jerusalem only a couple of days earlier. The chief priests and elders saw the cheering of the crowds and the chanting of the children, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” Matthew tells us “they were indignant” (Mt 21:14-15). They saw Jesus chasing the merchants and money-changers out of the temple and then teaching the people as if He were God’s gift to them! This was too much. They ask, “By what authority are you doing these things? We didn’t give you the okay!”

His authority, of course, is from His Father, from their God who sent Him not to set up a new program in the temple but to take its place. From now on people can find God not in a particular church or system of theology or philosophy. People can now find God only in Jesus.

Jesus let His accusers back themselves into a corner leaving their question unanswered for the moment. Many people today have unanswered questions. And to many the biggest unanswered question is Jesus! The typical unbeliever says, “Well, I don’t know what the Bible says but I think…,” exalting the opinions of their own imaginations. But many don’t get even that close as Jesus, of whom they have certainly heard, remains a stranger to them. They know nothing of Him because they have not heard Him, they have not discovered the only reliable revelation which is the Bible, the inspired, inerrant word of God.

By what authority does Jesus do what He does? St. Paul writes, “when we were children, we were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world. But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Gal 4:3-5). God the Father sent Jesus according to His plan ever since it was announced in Genesis 3:15, “in the fullness of time” on His saving mission.

That mission was not easy, happy or pleasant. The mission of salvation required upsetting the captivity of sin, destroying the “caliphate” (if you will) of the devil. It was sin that turned the supplying of animals required for the temple sacrifices into nothing more than a money-making venture. Jesus literally “turned the tables” saying, “it is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you make it a den of robbers” (Mt 21:13). Jesus pointed to the ministry of John the Baptist not only claiming he was called and sent by God, but because he preached and baptized what all sinners need, namely, repentance.

Now certainly being told that our sins are forgiven, that we have been released from the just condemnation of God’s Law is very good news, happy news. Yet the authority to release sinners from death required nothing less than His own death. No more animal sacrifices in the old temple, now that the Son of God has offered Himself on the altar of the cross, His blood satisfying the justice and power of God’s Law for the whole world, not only for the people living then or for us living in the future but also for all those who believed in God all the way back to Adam and Eve. Jesus is the promised offspring of Eve. Jesus is the substitute sacrifice for Abraham’s son Isaac. He is the Suffering Servant of the prophet Isaiah. He is the descendant of the great King David. As announced by John the Baptist, Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

Because of His saving work, His holy death and victorious resurrection, now all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Him. And how does He exercise that authority? “Go,” He says to his disciples, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” It is to be through our witness that people find the answer to their unanswered question, the revelation, the revealing of Jesus through His Word and Sacraments through which the Holy Spirit calls, gathers and enlightens sinners with the gift of saving repentance and faith.