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The Reverend Kathleen Killian

Proper 21A/23

Ezekiel 18:1-4,25-32

Psalm 25:1-8

Philippians 2:1-13

Matthew 21:23-32


These things: power and authority

In our gospel passage this morning Jesus is asked by the chief priests and elders: by what authority are you doing these things? To which we must ask: what things? what is Jesus doing that the temple leaders are calling into question? 

For some context, “these things” began on the Monday of what we now call Holy Week. Jesus had already entered Jerusalem on a donkey to shouts of Hosanna to the son of David! He has already been to the temple and overturned the tables of the money-changers, declaring in actions and words that this house of prayer has been made into a a den of robbers! Then he healed the blind and the lame—in the temple—while children shouted his praises: Hosanna to the son of David!

High stakes indeed; after which Jesus left the city to spend the night in the country. 

On his way back into Jerusalem the next morning, scripture tells us that Jesus was hungry and saw a fig tree by the side of the road. But when he found it hadn’t produced any figs, he cursed the tree which instantly withered. Still hungry, and seemingly cranky, he makes his way to the temple where he begins to teach, which is where our passage picks up today. Jesus has been causing a holy ruckus, and he’s back, much to the chagrin of the

chief priests and elders: Who does you think you are? By what authority are you doing these things? Their question seems like a fair one; after all, they are in charge of the temple, and their authority has been handed down to them through the generations from the time of Moses. 

Like a good rabbi, Jesus answers their question but with another one, turning the tables once again: I will also ask you one question, he says; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?

In correlating his authority with that of John the Baptist, a prophet of Israel living on the margins who met an untimely and brutal death for challenging authority, that of King Herod, Jesus foreshadows his own untimely death; his way of kingdom living with the disreputable, and testing and questioning the powers that be, leading him to the cross. 

The chief priests and elders know that whichever answer they give to Jesus’ question about John the Baptist’s authority, they will be caught short; and so they claim willful ignorance, answering: we don’t know. And so Jesus presses them further with the Parable of the Two Sons: which child did the Father’s will? the first son who initially refused the father’s request but then changed his mind and followed through on it? or the second son who first agreed but then didn’t follow through on the father’s request?

This is easy, think the priests and elders, as so they answer: the first son. And perhaps we also think this also pretty straightforward; though we would do well to ask, which son are we? If we’re honest, probably both sons; sometimes making promises we fail to keep, and sometimes rallying at the 11th hour to make good on the promises we’ve made in baptism, in confirmation, in confession, at the altar, on our knees in prayer. 

Jesus neither affirms or denies the “correct" answer but apprises the temple authorities that tax collectors and prostitutes will enter the kingdom of God before they do. In our Old Testament lesson, Ezekiel prophesies a similar message to the House of Israel, that those who abandon their sinful ways and turn to the Holy One will save their lives. But the righteous—self-righteous—person who talks the talk while refusing to be changed shall die.

Jesus essentially tells the chief priests and elders they are hypocrites, like the second son, all bluster and pride. 

Perhaps we’re wondering if the temple leaders were really all that bad and in such dire need of repentance. Perhaps we’re thinking the same of ourselves, that our hearts and minds are mostly just fine, but if need be, are tweaked on Sunday. But what about the rest of the week? Our gospel calls everyone of us to consider our internal state of affairs day by day. By what power or command do our hearts beat and our bodies act? Are we the authority of our own temples and lives? Who is in charge? 

I absolutely love what St. Paul says 1 Corinthians, that the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power (4:20). Do you know that the kingdom of God is powerful? And that we have the power to turn back to God—as many times as we need and so choose—so that a new heart and new spirit are given and created in us. Turn, then, and live, says the Lord our God. 

Jesus so clearly embodied power; power as demonstrated authority, and by definition, power as the capacity for being acted upon or undergoing an effect. This is vital to understand, that in allowing God to act upon him, and in his willingness to be changed by his Father’s will, Jesus’ power and authority were thus inextricable from his Father’s power and authority.

The religious authorities were most definitely interested in Jesus’ demonstrated power, but not in being changed by it. They lacked the necessary humility. Jesus points out that the prostitutes and tax collectors, those with little to no explicit power or authority—humbled as they were by life circumstances—sinners as they were by choice—will enter the kingdom first—because they allowed John the Baptist, and Jesus, to act upon their hearts and minds, to undergo repentance and thus redemption. 

Gracious and upright is the Lord; therefore he teaches sinners in his way. he guides the humble in doing right and teaches his way to the lowly (Psalm 25:7-8). 

Are we humble enough to learn God’s way, even if and when they seem “unfair”?  What causes us to change? What allows our hearts to yield and turn? What blocks us from allowing ourselves to be acted upon by our most powerful and almighty God? 

In his letter to the Philippians, Paul tells us: Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you—who energizes your desire to change. We can’t effort or earn our salvation or ultimate freedom, but we have a great responsibility to it—to respond to its gift—and to embody it with fear and trembling and wonder, that we are transformed by its awesome promise. If the forgiven do not forgive, and the loved do not love, then our salvation—the gift of new and eternal life in Christ— is not “worked out” nor our “responsibility” to God fulfilled. 

Paul goes onto say: Let the same mind be in you that you have in Christ Jesus.

This is the life-transforming authority of Christ that lives within each of us. Real change—deep and lasting—is possible, if our hearts are willing, trusting, receptive, and bold in faith. But, the possibility and promise of transformation in Christ comes at a cost, that “these things”—that we—will not stay the same. 

And so let us pray: Show me your ways, O Lord, and teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation (Psalm 25: 3-4). Grant us the fullness of your grace, O God, that we, running to obtain your promises, may become partakers of your heavenly treasure—your most powerful, saving, and eternal love (collect of the day).