[This was shared during worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio, earlier today.]
When I was a kid, I heard a recurring phrase from my dad.
Dad would be working around the house, as he always did--fixing a car, remodeling a room, painting the house, doing a home repair--and I would be doing what I always did, nothing. Dad would tell me to look for something--say, a “⅜ widget-whats-it-majiggie”--and I would be unable to find it. Then, Dad would get out from under the car or climb off the ladder or whatever, then go right to the thing he wanted, then tell me, “Mark, if it was a snake, it would have bitten you.” Dad was right because I seemed to have a knack for not seeing the obvious. (I often still do.)
In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus encounters people who either don’t see or refuse to see the obvious.
Let’s take a look at the lesson, Matthew 21:23-32. As we prepare to do so, let’s set the scene. The day before this encounter, Jesus had entered Jerusalem on what we now call Palm Sunday. People hailed Jesus as the Messiah or the Christ, the Hebrew and Greek versions, respectively, for God’s Anointed King, the Savior that Jews had been awaiting for centuries.
On entering Jerusalem, the center of Jewish religious and civic life, Jesus had gone to the temple. There, He overturned the tables of the money-changers who took advantage of the piety of simple Jewish folk, charging them exorbitantly for temple currency and for sheep and doves for temple sacrifices. As one scholar has written, Jesus acted like He owned the place. (Which, of course, as God in the flesh, He did.)
As today’s lesson begins, Jesus is approached by the men who think of themselves as the ones in charge of the temple, as well as of Jewish religious life, and the final judges of what was right or wrong, godly or ungodly. Take a look at the lesson, please.
“Jesus entered the temple courts, and, while he was teaching, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him. ‘By what authority are you doing these things?’ they asked. ‘And who gave you this authority?’” Their question basically, is this: “Who said that You could and say the things You’ve been doing and saying, Jesus?”
In English, the word authority is related to the word author. Authors, of course, are people who, with their words, create worlds, characters, and events. We believe that the God revealed as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is the, as Peter says in Acts 3:15, “the Author of life.”
It’s this God Who, with the mere power of His Word, made everything that exists. “God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light” and “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness” and humanity came into being (Genesis 1:3, 26).
We believe, by the power of the Holy Spirit Who makes faith possible, that Jesus was and is the very Word of God, Who took on our human flesh so that He could die for our sin and rise to give eternal life with God to all who see Jesus for Who follow Him.
But the chief priests and the elders of the people, who were experts in God’s Old Testament Word didn’t see Jesus in this way at all. And it’s not as though others weren’t seeing that Jesus was the Author of life. They were!
Remember the Canaanite woman, a foreigner to the Jews, who had called Jesus, “Lord, Son of David” (Matthew 15:22)? She had seen who Jesus was.
And remember how Peter told Jesus, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16).
And just the day before these “leaders” came to see Jesus, the Palm Sunday crowds had welcomed Him as Messiah.
Jesus once scored the temple authorities, the Pharisees, and the Sadducees as “blind guides” (Matthew 15:14). In their blindness, they challenge Jesus.
Verse 24: “Jesus replied, ‘I will also ask you one question. If you answer me, I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. John’s baptism—where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or of human origin?’” (Matthew 21:24-25).
Jesus is not engaging in any trickery here. He is trying to help these blind guides who, from their study of Scripture, should know where His authority came from because of Who He is, to see.
The question that Jesus asks them is also about authority. Who had given John the authority to call people to repentance and to point others to Jesus, the Messiah of Whom God the Father said in John’s presence, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17)?
Look at what happens next, starting with the second part of verse 25: “[The chief priests and the elders] discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin’—we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, ‘We don’t know.’ Then he said, ‘Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.’” (Matthew 21:25-27)
I suspect that the calculated response of the temple leaders betrays an important fact: They weren’t as blind to the obvious as they claimed to be. They knew that John the Baptist’s authority came from heaven, that is, from God. And they knew that Jesus’ authority came from the same place; they even knew, I think, Who Jesus was.
They had heard or seen that Jesus was raising dead people, curing diseases, casting out demons, calming storms, feeding masses of people, speaking God’s truth.
They saw, but refused to publicly acknowledge that Jesus’ authority came from His being the Author of life.
Their aim in asking the question about authority was to discredit Jesus so that they could get Jesus crucified and be rid of Him. They want Jesus dead and gone to protect their own supposed authority. They’re like the tenants in a parable would tell shortly after this encounter who said to each other, “This is the heir. Come, let's kill him and take his inheritance'” (Matthew 21:38).
It’s after the temple leaders’ refusal to answer Jesus’ question that Jesus tells a parable. A man has two sons. He asked them, not to find a “⅜ widget-whats-it-majiggie,” but to work in his vineyard. The first son refused, but then “changed his mind” and got to work. (The word translated as "changed his mind" in Matthew's original text, written in Greek, is one of the common New Testament words for repented. To repent is to change one's mind about walking away from God and His will and to instead, seek to walk with God and in God's will.) The second son told his father that he would work in the vineyard, but then skipped out. “Which of the two did what his father wanted?” Jesus asked those crowded around Him. Obviously, it was the son who changed his mind and did what his father asked of him.
The chief priests and the elders couldn’t have escaped understanding what Jesus was saying. They loved being seen as men of God, people who knew God and followed God. When they saw God face to face in Jesus though, they refused to follow Him. They refused to repent for sin. They refused to put their faith in Jesus and so have the life with God that only Jesus can give.
But when notorious sinners like tax collectors and prostitutes, people who had been saying no to God all their lives, heard John the Baptist’s call to repentance, did repent, heard Jesus’ call to surrendering faith and believed in Him.
Which of these two groups of people did the will of God?
Which of them saw that Jesus was and is “the way, and the truth, and the life”: those who honored Jesus with their mouths or those who gave Jesus their lives?
The answers to those questions are obvious.
But let me tell you the questions this gospel lesson forces me to ask myself.
First: Is there a disconnect between the faith I profess on Sunday mornings and the life I lead the rest of the week?
Second: If I really see Jesus as the Author of my life and the only One Who can give me life with God, life as it was meant to be lived, why do I so often live as though I didn’t see?
Here are some of the reasons I ask these questions:
I worry when I should pray.
I keep sinning when I should repent.
I observe when I should serve.
I lament over others’ sorry spiritual estate when I should be telling them about Jesus.
I watch TV when I should be reading God’s Word.
The chief priests and the elders talked a good game, but in truth, they preferred having authority over their own lives, rather than yielding authority to God. The second son in Jesus’ parable talked obedience, but he lived differently. Sometimes anyway, I can be just like them!
Our commitment to obedience to God is the measure not only of whether we see Jesus rightly, but also whether we will live in God’s kingdom.
If we see and follow Jesus as our Messiah King, we will seek to obey God.
If we don’t see nor follow Jesus as our Messiah King, we will refuse to obey God, no matter what creeds, prayers, and songs we mouth on Sunday mornings.
A man once told me, “I believe in Jesus. But I have things I want to do that God doesn’t approve of. I’ll get right with God when I’m older.” Really?
When our congregation's friend, Carl, went to bed this past Monday night, he had no idea that he was close to drawing his last breaths on this earth. But, thank God, he went to bed that night believing in Jesus, seeking to follow Him faithfully, seeking to serve faithfully in His name. And the grief of his family is lightened in the knowledge that Carl is with the Lord in Whom he trusted.
Tomorrow on this earth is promised to nobody. The time to follow Jesus is now!
Jesus is calling us to hold nothing back from His lordship.
If we think that God’s rules for our marriage and sexual lives, our finances, our attitudes toward those who are different from us, or the ways we use God’s name apply to others, but not to us, we walk away from God.
If we think that Jesus has only set super-saints free to believe in Him, love their neighbors, move mountains with mustard seed prayers, or fight for justice, then we really don’t see Jesus as our God and Messiah.
Faith is seen in our willingness to obey when Jesus says to repent and to obey too, when Jesus says to believe in Him and trust in His grace.
In this life, our obedience will never be perfect. That's why it's so important to live in a relationship of daily repentance and renewal with the God revealed in Jesus. We don't want to wander from Him, allowing sin to capture us and drive a wedge between our saving God and us. We want to have His forgiveness, grace, and power working in our lives today. We want to be ready to face eternity and live in His kingdom always.
I was struck this past week during my quiet time by 1 John 2:3-5: “We know that we have come to know [God] if we keep his commands. Whoever says, ‘I know him,’ but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in that person. But if anyone obeys his word, love for God is truly made complete in them…”
Let’s not lose sight of the obvious: That the Lord Who died and rose from the grave can give us new and everlasting lives and He alone deserves to have full authority over our lives.
May our lives be marked by faith in and obedience to the God we know in Jesus. Amen
[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio. Living Water is a congregation of the North American Lutheran Church (NALC).