The question that the chief priests and elders ask is one of the most important questions that was asked of Jesus: What is your authority?
Is his authority simply ‘earthly’?
Does his authority rest solely on the fact that he was a charismatic attractive individual, who was able to speak well, do remarkable things and draw crowds?
Because if that is the case, we can respect him as a great historical figure, we can admire and learn from his teaching, we can marvel at his works – but he does not have any claim on our life.
We can treat him as we would treat any other great figure from history. We can learn from him, and we can pick and choose which bits we like from him and reject the rest.
But if Jesus’ authority comes from heaven, if he is the eternal Son of God, then we really need to listen to what he says, and do what he says. If he has come from God, does the work of God and speaks the word of God, then we need to treat him as God.
So the chief priests and elders’ question is really important: “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority”.
But Jesus doesn’t answer the question.
He seems to avoid it; and he does that by asking the chief priests a question which he knows they cannot answer.
They cannot say that John’s baptism was from heaven, because Jesus will then ask them why they not did receive John’s baptism.
But the they also cannot say what they really thought - that John’s baptism was from earth – in other words it was something that John had made up – because John had martyr status among the people. He had been beheaded by Herod only a few months earlier, and the people treated him as a prophet. So they can’t say it.
It is like asking a Dinamo fan to go into the middle of a crowd of Spartak supporters and to shout ‘Spartak are rubbish’. You are not going to do it, unless you have a death wish.
So is Jesus being a little bit devious or crafty here in order to avoid answering the question? Or is he, as I suspect, doing something more?
You see the chief priests and elders had made up their mind. They had decided that Jesus was an imposter. That his authority came only from earth and not from heaven. They didn’t know how he did the stuff that he did, but they were convinced it was not of God.
And Jesus knew that if he told them that his authority came from heaven, it would not make the slightest difference.
But I think that Jesus, by pointing the chief priests and elders to John the Baptist in Matt 21, is trying to persuade them that, however unlikely it is, they can still change their mind.
In Matt 21.29, Jesus tells of two sons. The first son said No, but then we are told ‘he changed his mind’.
And in v32 he says to the chief priests and elders:
“You saw how sinners believed John when he declared to them that the Kingdom of God, the rule of God, is so near.
You saw how they heard him when he called them to repent: to stop living for yourself or for other people or for the things of this world; and to start to live for God, and for the things of that world. Stop doing the things that God hates: lying, stealing, using your power to exploit people, keeping what you have got for yourself – and start to live the things that God loves: generousity and kindness and mercy and honesty.
And you saw how sinners repented when John preached. You saw them go to him, confess their sins, and seek God’s strength to change. You saw them go into the water with John as they symbolically asked God to wash away their sin and give them a new life.
You saw all of this, he says, and yet (v32), ‘You did not change your minds and believe him’.
Jesus did not publicly declare that his authority came from God until the very end.
There is a strong emphasis on this in the gospels.
The demons recognise him as Messiah and want to proclaim it, and Jesus orders them to be silent
Those who are healed dramatically recognise him as Messiah and they want to proclaim it, but he tells them to be silent
His followers finally get it, and they say to Jesus, shall we go and tell people now, and Jesus says No!
The reason he doesn’t want to self-declare his authority is because as soon as he self-declares it, people have to make a decision.
Do I believe him or not?
Do I accept him or do I reject him as nuts?
And it seems to me that Jesus, in his mercy, even now, is giving the chief priests and elders one more reason for believing that he is the Son of God, that his authority does come from God. He is urging them to look at the sinners, at the tax collectors and prostitutes, who had begun by saying no to God, but who had changed their mind. And he is warning them and us that it is possible to be like the second son, to say yes to God with our lips, but no to God with our lives.
Perhaps you are somebody who still has to make your decision about Jesus.
The fact that you are here probably means that you have not rejected the possibility that Jesus might be the Messiah, the Son of God, but you are not convinced. You are open to have your mind changed.
Well it seems to me that what Jesus is saying to us is, ‘Look at the people who have changed their mind’.
I think of Michael. He was a dear friend to me and he died earlier this week. Michael was a gardener. He wasn’t a bad guy, far from it. Like most people in most places he lived life for himself and his wife and family, he worked hard at a job he was good at and enjoyed, and and he tried not to hurt other people. He didn’t believe. Then, one day, about 30 years ago, he walked into a village church in England and encountered God. He tells me that peace was given to him, almost physically, and it didn’t leave him. He started to come to church and was one of our most faithful worshippers at the early 8am service. Then, about 4 years ago Michael was diagnosed with Motor Neurons disease. It is pretty horrific. It began by affecting his feet and then slowly worked its way up his whole body so that he was finally completely paralysed. Michael decided to read through the bible. I would go and he would ask me to explain certain texts. But as he lost his ability to do literally everything, Michael was given a profound insight into the things of God. He never complained, thanked God for all the blessings God had given him, and especially his wife and daughter. And he said to me that he understood now why God had given him that gift of peace – and he did have this most astonishing sense of peace. We often prayed together that he would have a good death, and in the end, I am told that it was relatively peaceful and painless.
Or I think of Suraj in Bury. He came from a Hindu background, and he married Shani, a committed Catholic Christian. He came to me, about a year later, and asked to be baptised. I asked him why? He said he had looked at Shani’s life, at her patience and goodness and kindness, and at her faith, and he wanted to become a Christian.
And I’ve had the privilege this week of meeting with some of you and hearing how God has touched your life, how he helped you to ‘change your mind’, how you have come to believe, whether that was a sudden experience, or opening you up to a new way of thinking.
And it is good to tell our stories, and to encourage one another, and to see God at work in changing people’s lives.
Because when we see God changing someone’s life, it means that we will be open to change our mind.
Michael and Suraj were neither prostitutes or tax collectors. But I guess prostitutes and tax collectors stand for all who have first said no to God. They are the two extremes. Tax collectors were rich and they had power. There are many ‘tax collectors’ in cities like this. Prostitutes were usually abused and at the very bottom of the heap. There are many ‘prostitutes’ in cities like this.
I would love it if St Andrews were a place where tax collectors and prostitutes, and all of us in between who had consciously or unconsciously said No to God, could hear the word of God.
I would love it if it was a place where people who had said no to God, would be able to look around and see God changing lives: giving people a hunger to worship, to read his word, to put away their old little gods, and to step out in service.
And I would love it if they looked at that, and decided that having said no to Jesus, they might – after all – decide to do what he said.
This passage is about authority.
True authority never needs to be self-proclaimed.
Jesus knew that. In Matthew, Mark and Luke he never proclaims his own authority.
Actually, that is not true.
He does proclaim his authority, but at the very end, as he stands on trial for his life.
The die has been cast; there is now no more time for people to change their mind.
They ask Jesus, ‘Tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God’, and Jesus will reply – Mark makes this absolutely clear – “I am”. There is no ambiguity.
But real authority is revealed when we look at the lives of those who receive that authority. And if we want people to change their minds and submit to the authority of Jesus, they need to see how we have changed our minds and how we have submitted to Jesus.
That is why it is not just about what happens at this end of the church, about what we say or do. It is equally important about what happens at that end. It is about who we welcome and how we welcome them. It is about the quality of community that we offer. It is about the measure of lives that are being changed, as we kneel before Jesus.
Because when we get it right it really is a witness to the world of the authority of Jesus.