Reading Time: 4 mins

Gospel: Matthew 21:23-37 (Pentecost 18: Series A)

Reading Time: 4 mins

To manipulate God with our questions is, ultimately, to try and get ourselves off the hook and/or God off the throne.

The chief priests and the elders of the people are challenging the authority of Jesus. It makes sense. The battle lines were drawn early and neither side is yielding any ground. The authority of Jesus has taken center stage in Matthew 21. Jesus is met by shouts of “Hosanna to the Son of David!” after which He purges the Temple of those selling and buying, referring to the place as “My house.” Even His closest disciples marvel when the command of Jesus causes a fig tree to wither away.

Here are three different structures a preacher might adapt for the proclamation of Matthew 21:23-27. The first, an Epic structure, will focus on the conflict and what is at stake in this interaction. The second, a Verse-by-Verse structure, will suggest an expository approach which will help your hearers understand the biblical context. And the third, a Comparison/Contrast structure, will process the distinction between unfaithful and faithful ways we might bring our questions to Jesus.

Truths from the same Scripture reading are brought to life towards different ends based on the pastor’s discernment of the community’s current context. The organization of the sermon’s ideas and moments serves the specific occasion of proclamation.

An Epic Structure

  1. We open with the moment when the tension is at its highest. Maybe you develop an image of one of the chief priests glaring at Jesus, jaw clenched, eyes narrowing, loathing this man who has just evaded the trap, and we hear the reluctant words, “We don’t know.” Or maybe it is more of a dialogue as the antagonist’s huddle-up and process how they might respond to Jesus’ cross-examination of them. In either case, they are not happy with how this has turned out.
  2. The second experience steps back and looks at the larger narrative of Jesus’ ministry and the question of His authority. “Who does this man think He is?” It is not the question of the disciples, in faith and wonder, “Who then is this, that even the wind and waves obey Him?” It is much more like an indictment read at a hearing. The preacher could craft a serial repetition of all the ways Jesus has exercised His authority from the perspective of one who rejects that authority, and each new item leads to more disdain. It is clear their question is ultimately not a question, but a rejection of Jesus.
  3. The final section proclaims the authority of Jesus. They were right to be scandalized by what Jesus said and did. He was speaking and acting as God Himself! But the appropriate response should have been repentance and faith. Jesus does have all authority, in Heaven and on the Earth. He has the authority to lay down His life, and the authority to take it up again. So you may know He has authority on earth to forgive sins with His very words, He demonstrates the same authority by healing physical bodies. If this scene from Matthew 21 were a boxing match, the judges would probably award Jesus the win for the round, but it ends with a feeling of unresolved tension. The antagonists do not disappear quietly. In fact, they bolster their position by appealing to more authorities and exerting more power over Jesus, even to the point of His execution. Yet, it is precisely here that even the Roman Centurion recognizes who Jesus is: “Truly, this was the Son of God!” Such a position before Jesus does not require power or any personal prominence, but to come before Him poor in spirit, as a sinful person in need of a Savior.

They were right to be scandalized by what Jesus said and did. He was speaking and acting as God Himself!

 

A Verse-by-Verse Structure

  1. 21:23—This gives us the context. It invites a look back at the first half of the chapter. The King has come into the city of the kings. God Himself has come to the Temple, the house of the Lord on Earth. And in the middle of His teaching, His authority is questioned. This is the result of a brewing conflict.
  2. 21:24-25a—Jesus sees through the question and gets to the heart of the matter. They are not actually curious about Jesus’ authority, they are rejecting the work of God, just as they did with John the Baptist. Jesus’ question compels them to own their rebellion, even as He is implicitly inviting them to repentance yet again.
  3. 21:25b-26—The words of Jesus can reveal our own sinfulness. How do we respond in that moment? Do we double-down on ourselves, look for loopholes, defer blame? Or do we come clean, repent, and turn to God for mercy? Matthew gives us a negative example. A preacher might complement it with a positive narrative of how this could have gone in faith, by telling a real story of what repentance looks like when confronted with our own rebellion.
  4. 21:27—Jesus has all authority, not because He has outwitted the chief priests, but because it has been given to Him by His Father, because Jesus is the perfect Son. He does not tell them about His authority here, He demonstrates His authority by rising from the dead, which is of the same source as the authority He exercised when He taught and healed. And it is the very same authority He exercises as He works through His Church today, sent in His name, baptizing and teaching.

A Comparison/Contrast Structure

  1. Opening—Here in Matthew 21, we see a group of people asking a question of Jesus. Questions are not bad. Asking questions of God can be a beautiful expression of faith. Today we are going to highlight a couple ways we see the difference between unfaithful and faithful ways we might bring our questions to Jesus.
  2. Insincere verses Sincere Questions—God invites us to speak to Him and bring our questions to Him, even if we bring those questions from a position of hurt or pain (the Psalms are full of this!). But that is different from trying to manipulate God or trick Him. To manipulate God with our questions is, ultimately, to try and get ourselves off the hook and/or God off the throne.
  3. Granting Jesus Permission verses Honoring Jesus as Lord—The religious leaders act as if they have the right to grant Jesus permission to exercise His authority. Their tone assumes they are in a position to bestow their blessing on Jesus to continue, or to prohibit Him from His course, depending on whether or not He meets their criteria. This is far from a faithful statement which says, “Help me understand Your authority. Help me see how and why You do what You do.”
  4. Conclusion—This could be a serial repetition of some of the questions we have for Jesus. It can capture how the same words can come from different hearts. Maybe it leads to an invitation to explore what Scripture says about such questions at an upcoming Bible study. You can conclude with a first-person response, as from Jesus, affirming His love for His people, His compassion for our limited perspective, and an invitation to continue to trust His goodness. Hearers would leave reassured of His gracious Lordship.

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Additional Resources:

Craft of Preaching-Check out our previous articles on Matthew 21:23-27 (28-32).

Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching Matthew 21:23-27 (28-32).

Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Matthew 21:23-27 (28-32).

Lectionary Kick-Start-Check out this fantastic podcast from Craft of Preaching authors Peter Nafzger and David Schmitt as they dig into the texts for this Sunday!

Lectionary Podcast-Dr. David Scaer of Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN walks us through Matthew 21:23-27 (28-32).