October 1, 2017
September 27, 2020 (edited for the people of God at St. Matthew)
Focus: God has given all authority unto His Son.
Function: That the hearers lead by serving.
Power or Authority?
Concordia Publishing House has a book called Pastors and Elders: Caring for the Church and One Another. In the very first chapter of the book, Rev. Timothy Mech identifies a difference between power and authority.
Have you ever thought about that? Have you ever thought that power and authority were different words? I think for most of us, we treat them as synonyms, as though they mean the same thing.
But in this book, Pastor Mech defines the two differently. Power is when you strive or struggle to be able to exert yourself over someone. Put another way, it’s when you lead and act by your own abilities. Authority is when you lead by serving. When you’re working through power, you are fighting to put yourself above someone else. When you’re working through authority, you are leading people in the task that’s been assigned to you by someone else already.
This then is the struggle that we see in the text. As Jesus seeks to use His authority, that is to lead the people by serving them the way God the Father has instructed Him to do, as He tries, the chief priests and the elders try to flex their power.
Really, this is all of Jesus’ ministry, and continues even to this day, but to understand it better, we really need to look at all of chapter 21 of Matthew’s account of the gospel. The chapter begins with Palm Sunday, with Jesus’ triumphal entry as He rides into Jerusalem on a donkey. Don’t underestimate the weight of that move. Jesus is fulfilling an Old Testament prophecy of the coming King, the coming Messiah. If He’s seeking power, this is a bold statement, and one that’s not lost on the religious leaders. But which is it? Power or authority?
From there, Jesus then enters the temple, and cleanses it. This is one of those moments of anger for Christ, as the religious leaders had made a power play in turning the temple into a market for their own profits. We see Jesus overturning tables and rebuking the leaders of the people. Power or authority?
The next morning we get the account of Jesus cursing the fig tree. Power or authority?
Then we come to our text for the day. As Jesus reenters the temple, the religious leaders aren’t pleased. And they’ve taken their time to come up with a trap for Jesus. “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” If He answers that God gave Him the authority because as Peter said, He is the Christ, the Son of the living God, then they will have Him for blasphemy. If He answers anything else, then they will have Him for breaking the law of man and of Judaism.
But Christ’s wisdom is unending. As He freed Himself from their traps before, so He does again. And this time, He not only frees Himself, He turns the trap back on them. And not just once, but three times. “I also will ask you one question, and if you tell Me the answer, then I also will tell you by what authority I do these things. The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?”
And the religious leaders already know He’s got them. They discuss it together, but they know they can’t answer. If they say from God, then why didn’t they listen? If they say from man, the people will be angry and turn against them because they’d loved John as a prophet. And so they pass. And Jesus could have left the conversation there, because He’s free. He’s set Himself up to be able to continue to teach.
But He doesn’t stop there. He proceeds to throw two parables at them. The first is the Parable of the Two Sons, which goes like this:
“What do you think? A man had two sons. And he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ 29 And he answered, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he changed his mind and went. 30 And he went to the other son and said the same. And he answered, ‘I go, sir,’ but did not go.31 Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you. 32 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 when you saw it, you did not afterward change your minds and believe him.”
These religious leaders were the ones above all who should be following God and leading by His authority. But they aren’t. They’ve rejected God and are leading by their own power. Jesus has them. He’s spoken of the good of the people and the failure of the leaders. But again, Jesus continues:
33 “Hear another parable. There was a master of a house who planted a vineyard and put a fence around it and dug a winepress in it and built a tower and leased it to tenants, and went into another country. 34 When the season for fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants to get his fruit. 35 And the tenants took his servants and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. 36 Again he sent other servants, more than the first. And they did the same to them. 37 Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ 38 But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and have his inheritance.’ 39 And they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. 40 When therefore the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” 41 They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons.”
42 Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures:
“‘The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord’s doing,
and it is marvelous in our eyes’?
43 Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits. 44 And the one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.”
45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they perceived that he was speaking about them. 46 And although they were seeking to arrest him, they feared the crowds, because they held him to be a prophet.
Jesus has now not only called out the religious leaders, He’s condemned them. He has highlighted their guilt and their corruption and has laid upon them the full weight of God’s law. And they get it, they know He’s talking about them and their thirst for power. But even in all their anger, there’s nothing they can do, at least not until a couple of days later when Judas Iscariot sells them Jesus’ resting place for 30 pieces of silver.
We see this tension among ourselves. This struggle of power and authority exists in all of our communities. It exists in government, as people lord themselves over their community. Even the elected officials are often driven by power and will do anything to keep that power as long as they can.
We see it in the racial tensions in this land today. We see two completely opposite ways of thinking violently clashing against one another as they fight a fight of power. Power will not help this struggle, which is precisely what we are witnessing happening all around us. We need humble servants, willing to lead by serving and loving their neighbor.
We see it in marriage. Here we could spend weeks looking at Genesis 1-3 and Ephesians 5, at the ordering of God’s creation, and how in our sin, we’ve broken that order. But in the shorthand for this sermon, God gave the husband the authority to lead his family by serving. And in the fall, as part of the woman’s punishment, she will try to steal her husband’s position and use power to do it. And in return, the husband, instead of leading by serving, by the authority rightly given to him by God, the husband will lead by power. This is why marriages hurt. This is why marriages are broken. Because sin destroys.
But as I had you do before, having you acknowledge that in all Jesus was doing, He wasn’t acting out of power, but out of authority. Let’s see if you can place this quote: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me.” Pause. It’s the very end of Matthew’s account of the gospel. ALL AUTHORITY has been given to Jesus, by the Father. He rightly leads this world as Lord and as Savior by serving His creation.
And He served His creation by loving us so dearly, so overwhelmingly, so emphatically, that He took of Himself, He in His authority, He submitted Himself to the people in power. He submitted Himself to the religious leaders, He submitted Himself to the Roman leaders, He submitted Himself to the cross and to death.
It is in His authority, it is in His leading by serving, that Jesus saves us. That He conquers death, He conquers earthly powers. He conquers the sin that overwhelms our families, our communities, and our nations. The struggles for power between husband and wife are overcome in humble service. The struggles between the races of this earth are overcome when we humbly listen to one another and serve one another. The struggles between government and civilian are overcome when governments humble themselves and lead by serving, and when civilians humble themselves and respect the authority given to those who would lead them.
All of that sin, all of that brokenness is restored in Christ. And while we will only see shades of it in the here and now, we will be made perfect in His new creation. Which is why Matthew emphasized the end of this gospel account by quoting our Lord saying:
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me. 19 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, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Jesus entrusts His authority to us. He encourages us to lead our neighbor by serving our neighbor. He encourages pastors to lead His people by serving them with His words of forgiveness and life in the Sacraments. He even encourages all people in positions of leadership to lead well by serving, as we see spelled out for us in the fourth commandment. The Explanation of the Small Catechism states it this way:
“Who are parents and other authorities?” Parents are fathers, mothers, and guardians; other authorities are all those whom God has placed over us at home, in government, at school, at the place where we work, and in the church.”
It is in our sinful nature to cling to power. But it is in the very nature of God to lay down power to love and to serve. Jesus Christ was and is fully God. And yet He willingly laid that down, the power that He rightly holds, He lays down to humbly serve us, to use His authority to rebuke and to forgive His people. On account of His crucifixion and His resurrection, we live. And while we live, we have the authority to humbly serve one another.