A few years ago we celebrated the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. It’s hard to understate how important the Reformation is to the history of Christianity. Some may think the ongoing divisiveness and fracturing haven’t been worth it, while others may think that Christianity both Protestant and Catholic (due to the Counter-Reformation) would be unrecognizable without it. Whatever you believe, I think everyone can agree that it was transformative movement.
Martin Luther is the main figure of the Reformation. Though he began in earnest by wanting to bring change to the Roman Catholic Church, he did have his “line in the sand” moment which he could not go back from and a moment which defined his legacy. Christianity today says:
In April 1521, Luther appeared before Emperor Charles V to defend what he had taught and written. At the end of his speech, the story goes, he spoke the famous words, "Here I stand; I can do no other. God help me…Luther asserted that his conscience was captive to the Word of God and that he could not go against conscience….Without "Here I stand," is Luther's shining moment forever dulled, like the March on Washington without "I have a dream" or the Gettysburg Address without "Four score and seven years"? Hardly. http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/2008/august/what-luther-said.html.
Some scholars believe that with our passage today, we arrive at such a moment in Jesus’ ministry, the line in the sand, the point of no return. While there may not be a definitive memorable statement like “Here I stand” or “I have a dream” or “Four score and seven years ago” (although “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you” is very definitive) — the questioning of Jesus’ authority and ministry reaches a climax.
Jesus declares himself to be on the other side of the ledger of chief priests and the Pharisees. By the end of Matthew chapter 21, their minds are made up ready to arrest (and ultimately kill) Jesus. Jesus is heading resolutely toward the Cross. The confrontation happens in the Temple, appropriate for the battle for the religious and national identity of the people of God. To be clear, the fact that Jesus is returning to the Temple again In addition, Jesus’ return to the temple to teach, after the things he’s said in his earlier in chapter 21 in the Temple and with the parable of the fig tree demonstrate that Jesus isn’t anti-Temple or anti-Israel. Rather, as we see throughout Matthew, Jesus’ concern is fulfillment and restoring Israel’s worship and purpose to its true identity and mission as God’s chosen people.
Let’s take a look at how chapter 21 & the beginning of chapter 22 is structured: + Jesus Comes to Jerusalem as King (21.1-11) — Jesus the true King leader of Israel + Jesus at the Temple (21.12-17) — Jesus the true Priest of Israel + Jesus Curses a Fig Tree (21.18-22) — Jesus the true Prophet of Israel (judgment pronounced) + The Authority of Jesus Questioned (21.23-27) — TURNING POINT — Who authorized you? + The Parable of the Two Sons (21.28-32) — Choice of discipleship #1 + The Parable of the Tenants (21.33-46) — Choice of discipleship #2 The Parable of the Wedding Banquet (22.1-14) — Choice of discipleship #3
Jesus’ ministry as King, Priest, and Prophet establish that he’s the true Messiah, although this is not obvious to everyone. Those who are paying attention and truly follow Jesus recognize him fulfilling these roles (though probably in a limited sense pre-death & Resurrection). Jesus’ authority is demonstrated through his actions. The chief priests and Pharisees recognize that Jesus is a challenge to their authority. Our pericope begins withe their attempt to question and challenge his authority. When this effort is rebuffed, our pericope continues on to the implication of authority, namely — the question of discipleship. The three parables demonstrate different, nuanced aspects of what it means to accept or reject the authority of Jesus. This section of Matthew’s Gospel is about authority and discipleship. Perhaps that’s why our pericope doesn’t stop with the question of Jesus authority but includes the first parable about discipleship. Keeping those together gives us a view of the two purposes of the section. It also implies that the question of authority — or following Jesus — always includes a question of discipleship. Another way of saying this is that we cannot passively our neutrally observe Jesus and be indifferent. His authority as Prophet, Priest, and King — as Messiah — demands a response.
Authority and discipleship are themes throughout Matthews Gospel. The word authority is linguistically connected to the words authorize and author. Some assume wrongly that authority and power are synonymous because they both contain the ability to make something happen. There is a difference power is the ability to exert control over something — and it can be taken by force — whereas authority is something that is given to someone by the author who has actual power, it cannot be taken. The one who has authority is authorized to function in place of the one who truly has legitimate power.
For example, if one goes on vacation a thief can use his power to forcefully enter your house and steal your belongings. You have not authorized to be there, thus he has no authority. However, if you went on vacation and left a key with your best friend with instructions about how to take care of the dog and granting her permission to “make herself at home” your friend is authorized to act (use power) in accordance with your wishes. Related to our pericope, the chief priests and the Pharisees have power (positionally and culturally) and they have and desire to use that power as they see fit. But Jesus says that they have abdicated their authority and actually takes the final step and declares their authority revoked.
The chief priests and Pharisees lost their authority because they’ve confused power and authority. They’ve failed to realize that the authority that they possessed was given and it was given for a purpose. They became enamored with the power that comes with authority. They abused that power and because of disobedience, their authority is revoked. It is a complete and utter failure of discipleship (as the three parables demonstrate). Returning to our example, this would be like your best friend who you authorized to watch your house while on vacation, neglecting the responsibility of taking care of your dog and your dog dies. Furthermore, they’ve decided that now that they have a key to your house they’ll sell all of your stuff, change the locks, and refuse to leave.
Jesus returns — with authority as Prophet, Priest, and King — to set things right. There is still opportunity to choose to become his disciples. While their authority is revoked they can choose to come under Jesus’ authority and join his mission of restoring Israel to what God intended his people to be, which includes being a blessing to the nations. Most do not choose to follow Jesus. Sadly, it’s easy to understand whey. First, they’d have to agree with his judgment that they’ve failed in their discipleship. Many people want the benefits associated with Jesus, but confession and repentance are barriers their pride cannot overcome. Second, power corrupts. Once people seize power and take what they want, they rarely give it up. In part because it is addictive and in part because they know that if they give it up they’re vulnerable like the rest of us, including the people they’ve abused with their power. Their fear will not allow them to let go.
Our pericope has important implications for Christians today. Our very name derives from his name. We are “little Christ’s.” The authority we possess is given to us by Jesus. This authority does contain power but it is not our own power. What we do, we do in the name (authorized the authority) Jesus — provided we do what we have been authorized to do. Like the chief priests and Pharisees, we can abuse our authority and it can be revoked. All of our authority is dependent on obedient, faithful discipleship. Are we choosing authority or chasing after power?