The verses read for the scripture from St Matthew’s gospel chapter 21;verses 23-27, concern a puzzle, a conundrum, posed by Jesus to the Jewish leaders. It is on these verses I wish to concentrate our attention this morning. They relate to a meeting between, we are told, Jesus and “the Chief Priest and Elders of the people,” (v23) and the incident occurs in wider discussion by Jesus about the nature of faith in God the Father of Jesus Christ, the question of faith in God is the context in which this encounter is recorded.
The encounter between Jesus and the “Chief priests and the Elders”, concerns the question of authority. With this question they seek to elicit from Jesus an explanation by which they can understand the basis of His actions and teachings. On the surface this seems a perfectly simple and understandable question to ask of Jesus who comes amongst them doing and saying many things without any recognisable credentials that they can understand or accept. It is there right as the custodians of the community’s wellbeing that they should ask of Jesus, ‘Well, why should we believe what you say? Tell us by what authority you preach and teach?’ Give us an explanation of your right to be teaching and acting in the manner of one who speaks on behalf of God.
The way the question is posed means that Jesus authority needs to be explained in terms that they, the Jewish leaders, understand their own authority. For their authority is understandable, they stand in a long line of traditional authority stretching back to appointment by Moses. They can point to their descent and lineage of priesthood and eldership which originates in the formation of Israel itself. But what of Jesus, the itinerant teacher from Nazareth? Their assumption is that since Jesus cannot point to any recognisable or understandable authority or tradition He will not be able to say by what authority he teaches and thus be shown to be a fraud.
But in Jesus reply to their clever question about authority, we are meant to see the impossibility of faith in God as a human possibility, a human undertaking. This incident between Jesus and the Jewish leaders in the Temple confirms the well-known words of Martin Luther concerning knowledge of and faith in the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when he makes, to us, the somewhat puzzling statement,
“I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith. In the same way He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth……… This is most certainly true.” (Commentary on the Third Article of the Creed in the Small Catechism)
You may well ask the question, but Jewish leaders that day in the Temple questioning Jesus authority did not have Luther’s Smaller Catechism in their pocket to which they could conveniently refer? Of course, they did not. But Jesus reply indicates the same understanding of knowledge and faith in God as Luther’s statement in the Catechism.
According to Jesus reply to the Jewish leader’s question about His authority they are directed to their view of John the Baptist’s Baptism. Was John’s baptism of God or man? The Jewish authorities know they cannot answer that it was from God because if they did, they would be shown to be unbeliever’s in Israel’s God for whom they claim authority to speak. They did not recognise John as a prophet who’s coming is directly related to Jesus as the promised Messiah. They cannot admit that John spoke in the name of God, as it would show them up as unbelievers and their authority a fraud.
But on the other hand, they cannot say that John’s baptism was a human action because if they did their credibility, their authority, amongst the people would be questioned since the people recognised John as sent by God. So, the Jewish leaders are seen to be caught between a rock and hard place and thus they refuse to answer Jesus question.
The point of Jesus question, in answer to the Chief Priests question about His authority, is that the witness of the Baptist, His preaching and baptism, raises the possibility of God coming to His people in grace and judgment: a God whose will and purpose is expressed, not in some far off heaven but here and now in the midst of His people. The word of the Baptist was that this reality was soon to be realised and realised in Jesus who came to him on the banks of the Jordan river whom John recognised as the Son of God. John told his disciples Jesus was “the Lamb of God”. In St John’s gospel Chp. 1:29, we read “The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”
The Jewish leaders in rejecting the possibility that the witness of the Baptist to God’s coming to them in gracious judgment denies the very reason for Israel’s existence. For Israel’s very existence in the world was witness to the fact that their God comes to them and acts for them, creating them as a people in the world for His redemptive purpose for all people. The God of the Jews is a God who acts in the world. He lives and acts in the historical relationships in which His people are involved. That is the whole purpose of the witness of the Old Testament scriptures. The God of the Old Testament is a living acting God who comes to His people in grace and judgment throughout their history, even to this present day.
Jesus refusal to answer their question concerning His authority is intended to heighten the dilemma in which the leaders of God’s people find themselves. Jesus silence, His refusal to answer the question as to the basis of His authority, proclaims what the Baptists word indicated, that God’s action is ungrounded in anything but God’s freedom. God’s action is grounded only in the inexpressible freedom of God to be the God He determines Himself to be for His people.
The great declaration of God to Moses question as to who God’s identity is, in the book of Exodus, “I am who I am.” or “I will be who I will be” is God’s response to Moses’ request for His name. He gives Moses an unpronounceable name which indicates He determines Himself to be the God of Israel in the inexpressible freedom of His grace. So, to Moses He gives Himself a name which the human tongue cannot pronounce based on the consonants and vowels of the Hebrew verb “to be”. And to this day the Jews do not take the name of God on their lips since it is not only holy but is unpronounceable. So, when reading the scriptures, they say “Ha Shame”, “the Name” when they come to the word signifying Israel’s God. The authority of God’s presence in the world is ungrounded, precisely because God’s presence was and is the activity His free grace, His realised salvation for His people. His voluntary, free action, towards them in Jesus cannot be demonstrated by any authority in this world since it is the authority of the ungrounded love of God, His free grace. If we are to know this God then we must recognise this fact and know Him only by believing Him and not try to establish His authority by something we regard as authoritative aside from the action of God Himself who has come to us in the humility of His free grace.
Jesus silence does not simply confront his questioners with a puzzle. This puzzle reflects the contradiction of their existence before God. Their question shows the impossibility of their faith in God being real. For faith, and therefore knowledge of God, presupposes that God’s coming to His people is not motivated or grounded in who they are or in what they understand the world to be; but simply in His free condescension, His grace. Jesus silence is an invitation to the Jews to again allow themselves to be grasped by the mystery of their being the people of God. God’s unfathomable mercy toward them which in terms of who they are is completely inexplicable, ungrounded. In Charles Wesley’s memorable words, God’s grace is His “undistinguishing regard, that is immense, unfathomed and unconfined.” Its nature cannot be conceived even by the angels, for “In vain the first-born Seraph tries to sound the depth of love divine”, “Tis Mystery all that thou my God shouldst die for me.”
For Jews will again be confronted with Jesus silence to which His silence here points. This silence is before Pilate in the judgment place, Gabatha, where Jesus is asked the same question as the High Priest in the Temple. Jesus refuses to answer precisely because the mystery of God’s grace deepens and widens in that now God Himself becomes in His Son identified with His people’s sin. He refuses to justify Himself. He thus allows Himself to be put in the wrong in order that His people in their god forsakenness may be given to participate in His own eternal righteousness.
What does this incident in the Temple teach us about our faith in terms of Luther’s words: “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him.” It teaches us that we cannot give a reason for our faith and hope in Christ that is related to who we are or what the world is. Faith in God is something created by God’s action, His grace toward us in His action in Christ. It cannot be demonstrated by anything in this world but comes to us by God’s free grace. The Jews refused to live by this mystery of grace and sought to make Jesus tell them how his authority is based in what they regarded as their authority as leaders of the people of Israel. This was an impossible request, because Jesus presence in the world is grounded in the unfathomable action of God’s condescension in grace to redeem and renew His people. We must heed Luther’s words and understand that faith is not some magic trick which we perform because of some religious skill or motivation we have. Faith is true knowledge of God because it is not our knowledge, it is God’s knowledge of us in Christ.
Dr. Gordon Watson.