“Another kind of authority belongs to Jesus” Wednesday of Trinity 17 — October 4, 2023

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04. October 2023
Proper 21A
Matthew 21:23-32

In the holy Name of + Jesus. Amen.

Today’s Gospel is two stories, back to back—the first deals with the question of Jesus’ authority. The second is the parable of the two sons. We’re in the final days in Jerusalem before the Crucifixion. Jesus is confronted about His teaching, and some are trying to kill Him. The teaching that is most offensive is who bears sins. If it’s you, then you’ve got a problem. How are those sins going to be judged on the final day? Jesus has the authority to repent you, change your mind about your sin, and return you to God in faith for forgiveness.

The text today begins with a question. “By what authority? And who gave you that authority?” Questions belong to the Law. The Law poses questions but doesn’t promise anything. These questions come from experts in the Law and all manner of it. There is ceremonial or religious (worship and Sabbath), and the moral law (the rest of the week). Jesus doesn’t make that kind of distinction here. But the primary question of the law is “By what authority?” The rules or laws aren’t the thing, but whether you have the power to make and judge them. And Jesus comes, never having studied in their schools, endorsed by their guild, or having passed their bar exam. 

Since they asked a law question, He responded with a law question, too. By responding with a question, He is withholding the answer. He is not giving the Gospel (a promise) but more law. Yet, He is hinting (for us) as to where the authority of the Gospel. Jesus gives the example of John the Baptist. And like Jesus, John didn’t matriculate through their system and gain their imprimatur. You remember that the priests and elders checked him out, too. In Jesus’ response, He gives us the clue to determining authority and its giver. 

But another clue is John’s baptism. Do you remember what it was for? That’s right, it was a baptism of repentance. Here, you may get confused because you are good Lutherans who know that baptism is a gift given, not a work of man. But I’ve been lax in teaching you that repentance is also a gift given, not your work. You don’t repent. Repentance doesn’t come by the law. All the law can give is knowledge of sin, but it cannot change what you think or do about it. It tells you what to do but doesn’t give you the power to do it.

But sinners have an answer! If the Law cannot do what it demands, then we imagine we must have some power inside ourselves to do it, change our mind, or repent. This is the brilliant teaching of the parable, the second half of our Scripture. The first son says, “No! I don’t agree with the Law,” but then goes and does it. The second son exclaims, “Yes! I agree with the Law.” But then doesn’t do it. So how did the first accomplish the will of the Father, despite disagreeing with the Father’s Word? Here, Jesus is teaching us that there is another authority at work to accomplish God’s will, and it’s not of the Law. 

Another kind of authority belongs to Jesus: giving the Gospel in Word and gifts. The chief priests and elders know nothing of this authority. They do not have that jurisdiction nor have been ordained for it. They don’t understand John, and they can’t understand Jesus. They come with a Word that delivers people from the bondage of their sin. This Word is often attached to means like water, clothing, or touch. The Word accomplishes repentance. The word “repent” is passive, not active, meaning it is done to you. God repents you! Everything about John’s baptism is God’s work. This is why Jesus points to John’s baptism as a sign of His authority.

The baptism of John was never explicit until the Baptism of Jesus. When Jesus says, “baptize me,” John initially wouldn’t do it. Why would Jesus need to be repented? He did not need the forgiveness of sins. But the authority was delivered to Jesus when the heavens opened, and the voice said, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased!” The authority given in the baptism is to deliver a promise. So, the answer to Jesus’ rhetorical question is that it is from heaven (from the Father) and not from men (handed over by John.) So, the chief priests and elders punt, as lawyers often do and advise. Just plead the fifth and avoid self-incrimination. So, Jesus binds their sins to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.”

But you can’t do that because your whole faith and life hinges on the question, “By what authority? And who gave you that authority?” Jesus’ authority is from God the Father in heaven, preaching the Law to reveal sin but preaching the Gospel to unbind that sin through His innocent suffering and death and shed blood. Jesus can do something no one can do: bear your sins and forgive you. What an authority but so contradictory to anything we could believe or imagine! Everything in this world and life outside the Gospel requires you to bear the weight of your actions. But the Gospel promise accomplishes what the Law cannot do: absolve you and set you free.

That’s why the parable of the two sons is such a head-scratcher. Doesn’t God need our assent to His commands? No, the only way to have this required change of mind, the regret of sin, is to have a change of heart. That gets us closer to what we know from Ezekiel 36 and Psalm 51. We can’t change our hearts, but God must give us new hearts of flesh or create in us clean hearts. So, you don’t repent. Jesus repents you, just as He did for all those who believe in Him, even tax collectors and harlots. IRS agents and floozies get it because they know their sin, and the forgiveness is for them.

It depends on Jesus’ authority to make you righteous in Him. That authority Jesus received at His baptism and bestowed on His church after His resurrection. He breathed on His apostles and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Now, the whole life of the Christian is one of repentance and sorrow over sin because we hear and believe that those sins are forgiven. And I stand before you as one under the authority and orders of Jesus to say this again, “In the name of Jesus, I forgive you all your sins.” Amen.

The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guards your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus. Amen.

Rev. Christopher R. Gillespie
St. John Ev. Lutheran Church & School – Sherman Center
Random Lake, Wisconsin