Wednesday Bible Study by Pastor Tim

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Read Matthew 21:23-32

What Kind of Authority?

There are a lot of currents swirling in the background of this scene in Matthew, so it might help to begin by looking at some of this background and context.

Jesus has just entered Jerusalem at the beginning of chapter 21, “invading” the city while riding on a donkey (what we call Palm Sunday) (21:1-11). His first action is to take over the temple, sweeping out those trying to make unethical profit at the expense of worshippers (21:12-17). After this, Jesus and his disciples leave the temple, but he returns the next day after cursing a fig tree on the side of the road (21:18-22).

Today’s scene, with the chief priests and elders, is the beginning of a series of conflicts and controversies between Jesus and religious leadership in the temple (focus of chapters 21-23). In the background, however, is the military domination of the Roman Empire. The chief priests and elders have power in the temple at the pleasure of Rome, which provides financial support to make sure the empire’s interests are heeded. Jesus’ actions to enter Jerusalem and cleanse the temple are not just religious controversies among scholars, but political threats to Rome’s control. As Richard Swanson notes, the “Roman sword hangs over everyone in this scene.” (“Provoking the Gospel of Matthew,” 2007, p. 236)

Into these swirling currents of fear, violence and control, Jesus and the religious leaders verbally spar over “authority.” The chief priests and elders ask Jesus two questions: 1) What kind of authority do you have to occupy the temple? and 2) Who gave it you? (21:23) Jesus responds by not answering, but by asking his own question instead! He points toward John the Baptizer—about whether John’s authority was of divine or human origin (21:24-27).

It might be helpful to look again at where John appeared: in the wilderness (Matthew 3:1-12). Matthew puts him outside the halls of power, in the Judean desert, and yet people stream out there to hear John’s preaching of the coming kingdom. This kingdom, proclaimed by prophets like Isaiah and John, has become reality in the person of Jesus.

Yet Jesus is a source of conflict in Matthew’s gospel, as his authority is constantly attacked, ridiculed and questioned, reaching a climax in this section. The conflicts between the reign of God, represented by the prophets, John and Jesus, and the religious and political powers, represented by the chief priests, elders and the Roman Empire, will ultimately lead to Jesus’ public execution by Roman soldiers. The empire’s sword comes down swiftly on Jesus, as it had for John (14:1-12).

Yet surprisingly, ironically, Jesus’ death affirms how different his authority is. His authority is to heal, forgive sins, preach love for enemies, welcome outcasts like tax collectors and prostitutes (see Matthew 21:31-32), feed hungry people, and extend mercy and welcome to Gentiles. This different kind of power and authority is affirmed when he dies on the cross and is raised from the tomb. The risen Christ then empowers his followers with this kind of authority: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations….” (Matthew 28:18-20)

The reign of God, embodied fully in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, represents a completely different kind of power. And we are invited into it!

Reflection Questions

1) What stands out for you in this conflict between Jesus and other religious leaders? Why do you think Jesus answers their questions with a question?

2) How would you describe Jesus’ power? What does it look like and feel like for us who are his disciples in 2020?

3) The second half of our reading is a parable about a man with two sons, and focuses on one son “changing his mind” and working in the vineyard. What does this say about our need for repentance: having our minds changed, moving in a new direction, taking actions with new commitment? Does an openness for changing our minds help in situations of conflict within and/or outside of the Christian community?

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