Kurt Jacobson
6 min readOct 1, 2023

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“What Our Authority is to Look Like”

October 1, 2023

Matthew 21:23–32

When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, ‘By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?’ Jesus said to them, ‘I will also ask you one question; 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?’ And they argued with one another, ‘If we say, “From heaven,” he will say to us, “Why then did you not believe him?” But if we say, “Of human origin,” we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.’ So they answered Jesus, ‘We do not know.’ And he said to them, ‘Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.

‘What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, “Son, go and work in the vineyard today.” He answered, “I will not;” but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, “I go, sir;” but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?’ They said, ‘The first.’ Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax-collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.

Young children love asking questions. If you have spent any time with a 3 year old you know that it is true and you know that most of their questions begin with “why?” Research shows that young children ask about 300 questions a day. Warren Berger, author of A More Beautiful Question, says kids ask an average of 40,000 questions between the ages of 2 and 5. Adults, on the other hand, ask on average about 25–30 questions a day.[i] Asking questions remain one of life’s most important skills. Asking questions is important.

Jesus was always asking questions. They varied widely. “Why are you afraid?” “Why do you call me good?” “Who do you say that I am?” “Where is your faith?” “Why do you doubt?” By one estimate Jesus asked as many as 307 questions in the Gospels.

Martin Copenhaver in his book: “Jesus is the Question: The 307 Questions Jesus Asked and the 3 He Answered” states that asking questions was central to Jesus’ life and teachings.[ii] But what Jesus did numerous times was to answer a question by asking one and then telling a story or a parable.

Jesus is asked a big question in this passage: “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority? The powerful religious leaders in Rome pose this question just a day after Jesus created a scene at the temple by flipping over tables. He was enraged that the temple was operating as a business which made it harder for people to come to God. The religious authorities saw Jesus as a challenge to their authority.

The chief priests and the elders were shrewd and they were attempting to spring a rhetorical trap and sideline Jesus. What mattered to them was not the right answer, but whether the answer served their purposes. On this day in the temple, these religious authorities posed a question about authority to which Jesus poses several of his own, confusing them to the point that they admitted, “We don’t know,” at which point Jesus launches into a parable.

Jesus tells of a father and his two sons. The father asks both of his sons to go to work in the family vineyard. One son says something like, “Sure! I will get right on that!” But in the end, he does not follow through. The other one initially says he will not help out in the vineyard but winds up doing so in the end.

It is a short story that seems to have a clear moral: actions speak louder than words. But in light of the earlier exchange between Jesus and the chief priests about authority, this parable has a deeper message.

First, authority is different from power. Both are important concepts within leadership. Power refers to the ability for a person to influence others and direct their behavior. Authority refers to the legal right to give commands and make decisions. The link is important. One has authority to do things (like the sons going to work in the vineyard) because of being authorized by the one with the actual power (the father and owner of the vineyard). Authority is only granted.

Second, we usually tend to think about authority as being given by someone “above us.” Teachers, police officers, doctors and other authority figures have been invested with authority by some group or person with power — a school board, the government, a board of medical examiners, whatever. But authority is also given “from below.” Students who ignore a teacher, a population who ignores laws en masse, patients who disregard all medical advice undermine any serious notion of authority existing on its own. Authority is inherently relational.

With all this in mind, the parable shows the power of the two sons to see and recognize authority. One pays lip service to his father’s authority, while the other seems to rebel but ultimately grants authority.

The same is true with the religious leaders that day– they have been invested with authority but ultimately do not grant the authority Jesus’ has been given “from heaven” by following him.

After telling the story of the two sons, Jesus asks them: Which of the two did the will of his father?’ They said, ‘The first.’ Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. Jesus points out that these whom society considered “sinners” grant Jesus’ authority by listening to him and following his teaching. The priests and scribes did not. It is a reversal of expectations — those who are seen as the antithesis of the “good” who have failed to live in the right way, will be given entry to the kingdom of heaven first. The religious leaders had to be incensed.

So, what does any of this have to do with us? Nothing, until we ask ourselves a similar question: to whom have I given authority in my life? Sometimes, like the first son, we may testify to our faith in God and yet give authority via our actions and practices to so many other things: a culture that glorifies accumulating possessions, our own safety and security, our particular ideological commitments, whatever. Each day we declare through our decisions and actions to whom we have given authority.

Fast forward to the end of the story, according to Matthew. Jesus has called all his disciples together and gives them power and authority to carry on his ministry. “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” Remember, authority is inherently relational. So, in his final words we hear from Jesus what our authority is to look like. That is, what actions, decision, choices are ours to recognize Jesus’ authority. The directive is clear: “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, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”

“And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’”

Good news? It is for our neighbors, this world, and for us, too.

Images:

redletterchallenge.com/the-305-questions

Cost-of-discipleship.blogspot.com

[i] Tinybob.com February 17, 2016, by Sara Distin

[ii] Martin B. Copenhaver. The 307 Questions Jesus Asked and the 3 He Answered (Abingdon Press, September 2, 2014)

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Kurt Jacobson

Author of “Living Hope” & “Welcoming Grace.” Lutheran preacher (retired) but still writing to inspire and aim for a world of mercy, love and respect.