Commentary on Matthew 21:23-32
In my posting last week, I referred to Jesus’ ministry as “a gracious transformation, a divine reclamation, of the world.”
This week (and next week), we see more clearly how this ministry of transformation and reclamation offends those with a vested interest in reinforcing the status quo.
It all boils down to the question of authority. This is the question that encapsulates the governing conflict of Matthew’s narrative, in which traditional leaders struggle to come to terms with Jesus’ ministry. The Pharisees have already failed to come to terms with the way Jesus breaks through the purported boundaries separating obedient from sinful, clean from unclean (Matthew 9:10-13; 12:1-14; 15:1-20). Now the chief priests and elders are struggling to come to terms with Jesus’ public demonstration in the temple (Matthew 21:12-17), a demonstration that included not only his protest against the absence of prayer in God’s house (Matthew 21:13) but also praise from the many people he heals there: “Hosanna to the Son of David!” (Matthew 21:15).
Jesus’ transformation of the world requires the self-examination of those heretofore in charge. Or, one can simply resist the transformation and challenge the authority of Jesus himself.
Thus, the question: “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” (21: 23) The chief priests and elders are apparently expecting the name of a teacher; a human association that will help them better understand Jesus’ actions. If you can identify someone’s teacher, then you can better grasp what they’re all about. More to the point, they are prepared to counter any and all claims to human authority with their own authority. At least as far as the local Jewish status quo is concerned, there is no claim to human authority that they cannot trump. They are the temple leaders.
The possibility they are not prepared to entertain is the possibility of Jesus wielding an authority “from heaven” (Greek: ex ouranou). This possibility is embedded within Jesus’ surprising counter-question: “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” (21:25) It must be pointed out that while Jesus is being somewhat indirect, he is not being evasive. That is because the question of John’s authority is essentially the same as the question of his own authority. After all, it was John who prepared the world for Jesus (Matthew 3:1-17). Thus those who acknowledge the divine origin of John’s authority will likewise acknowledge the divine origin of Jesus’ authority, while those who fail to identify the authority of John will fail to identify the authority of Jesus. In this way Jesus’ counter-question is somewhat of a test− one the chief priests and elders have already failed! We might call this the pointless retest for the student who has not bothered to learn anything new.
This means that their response to Jesus’ question about John reveals their own stance towards Jesus. Sadly, the response is calculated toward saving face in the public sphere, and preserving their own perceived authority, more than it is open to the possibility of John (and therefore Jesus) wielding an authority “from heaven.” If we acknowledge John’s authority, they reason, it will make us hypocrites. But if we openly reject it, we will invite the scorn of the people. Thus what begins as an attack on Jesus quickly becomes an exercise in damage control. Having been trapped in their own self-interest, they can only feign ignorance: “We do not know.” (21:27)
When it comes to preaching these kinds of confrontations, it is all too easy for us to disparage the chief priests and elders, to seek protection behind Jesus and point our fingers at them. This does little to build up the church, however, and would likely result in a haughty confidence in our own authority–just like the chief priests and elders! It is therefore wiser to place ourselves in the shoes of Jesus’ opponents, to risk being confronted with the question of Jesus’ authority over against our own claims to authority. Without a constant interrogation from Jesus himself, we are just as prone to reducing Jesus’ authority to human terms as the chief priests and elders, placing him on par with ourselves, and reinforcing the very status quo Jesus seeks to transform.
In this way the question of Jesus’ authority does not merely encapsulate the Gospel of Matthew. It encapsulates the Christian gospel as a whole. For the church, then and now, everything depends upon the source of Jesus’ authority. If it is ultimately “from humans” (Greek: ex anthrôpôn), then Jesus is really no different than the next charismatic leader (except for maybe his more pathetic death), and the church will be forced to define itself only as a human institution among other human institutions. In other words the church will be forced, like Jesus’ opponents, to compete against perceived rivals, reducing its mission to the quest for power, even if it purports to use that power for doing “good” in the world.
If, however, Jesus’ authority is “from heaven,” then his messianic claim is valid (Matthew 16:16-17, 20), and the church must stake claim to a unique mission, a mission that relinquishes power in bringing Christ to the world, just as Christ relinquished power in bringing himself to the world. The church living under Christ’s present, heavenly authority will embody Christ’s own ministry as “a gracious transformation, a divine reclamation, of the world.” For it is surely no coincidence that the Greek term for authority (exousia) surfaces next at the Great Commission that concludes Matthew’s Gospel: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:18-19).
The church’s mission is predicated on Jesus wielding “all authority.” This is not a sharing or granting of authority as much as it is a call to full submission and obedience. As the father of the next parable states simply: “Son, go and work in the vineyard today” (Matthew 21:28). This is the week for churches to reflect on the ways they compete for authority and power, and to envision prayerfully where the relinquishing of authority and power must take place. Whether we compete with fellow parishioners, our own pastors, “rival” churches, or non-church entities, such competition reflects our own obstinate rejection of Jesus’ absolute authority. Are we “making disciples” of Christ who embody Christ’s transformation and reclamation of the world, or are we “making disciples” of a merely human institution that fights for territory in the world?