By the Rev. Elisabeth Hartwell
Revised Common Lectionary Reflection, Proper 21, Year A
October 1, 2023 (Click here for the readings)
Key verse: They asked Jesus, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” -Matthew 21:23
Dear fellow preachers, our text this week prompts us to contend with authority. In it, Jesus is questioned by the chief priests and elders as to who’s given him the authority to speak and act as he does. After all, in the preceding verses, Jesus has just caused quite the uproar as he’s cleansed the temple. They want to know by whose authority he’s acting and why he believes he’s entitled to so dramatically disrupt the status quo.
Quite frankly, in this present day and age Jesus continues to cause quite the uproar. He may not be overthrowing tables in the temple in Jerusalem, but he’s definitely still disrupting the status quo in churches and lives. And so, our text provides the opportunity to take a critical look at authority: what it is, who grants it, and how it provides guidance and exercises control in our faith. As we recognize that the question of authority isn’t confined to the pages of scripture, we might ask to whom and to what we look for authority, both in matters of church life and in our individual lives of faith.
My fellow preachers, you might very well be able to name your own reasons why the question of authority is a significant one. For my part, I can name two reasons why it seems particularly relevant. For starters, we’re entering what is, for many churches, stewardship season. We’re asking our congregants to consider their financial pledges for the next calendar year, Stewardship season is an ideal time to examine who and what assumes authority in our lives.
In addition, many of our mainline Protestant denominations have been experiencing significant turmoil over the past decade or two. At the heart of many of the issues that divide us is the question of authority. What do Jesus’ authority and biblical authority look like in our churches and lives? Conscientious believers who live their faith devoutly often have deep, painful disagreements when it comes to questions of authority.
So, with these things in mind, what does Jesus say about authority? In your sermon, you might go about answering this question in a couple different ways:
You could point the first portion of our text (vv. 24-27), in which Jesus compares his authority to that of John the Baptist. Although he doesn’t say this directly, Jesus implies that both his authority and John’s come from heaven. You might ask in your sermon what authority from heaven looks like and how it compares to our conventional notions of authority.
You might also delve into the second portion of our text (vv. 28-32), in which Jesus explores who ultimately carries out God’s will. Jesus asserts that those who act in accordance with God’s will and purposes for their lives are those who actively believe and live out their faith. What does true belief in God look like, and how do we genuinely live what we believe?
Exploration of this text can be a catalyst for deep reflection when it comes to authority and faith. As Christians, we say we follow Jesus. But what exactly do we mean by this? We often have very different ideas about what it means to follow Jesus and what it means for him to exercise authority in our daily lives. The sermon you preach can enable your congregants to achieve greater clarity about who it is they follow, and can provide a sense of unity in a time of great divisiveness.
Encourage congregants to think very literally about the question of authority. Who in their lives exerts authority over them, and to whom do they answer? It is likely they answer to many “bosses” all at the same time. And yet, over and above all these bosses is Jesus. How does their commitment to Jesus affect how they answer to other people of authority in their lives?
Invite youth to compare the first and second sons in the parable Jesus shares. At times, we have all been the one who said “yes” but then did not follow through, just as we have been the one who said “no” but then did what we had been asked to do. Begin by asking youth when in their daily lives they have or have not followed through with a commitment. Then you can invite them to reflect on this same question when it comes to faith.
Start by playing a round of Simon says. Once you have played this, ask kids how they knew what to do. Of course, when instructions were preceded by the words “Simon says” they knew to do something. Invite kids to consider that following Jesus is something like playing Simon says. We listen to what Jesus tells us to do, and then follow his instructions as best we can. Many times we fall short, but we keep trying and do not give up.