23When [Jesus] entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came up to Him as He was teaching, and said, “By what authority are You doing these things, and who gave You this authority?” 24Jesus answered them, “I also will ask you one question, and if you tell Me the answer, then I also will tell you by what authority I do these things. 25The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?” And they discussed it among themselves, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ He will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe Him?’ 26But if we say, ‘From man,’ we are afraid of the crowd, for they all hold that John was a prophet.” 27So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And He said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things” (Matthew 21:23-27).
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
As the national election approaches, we see candidates calculate how they should answer questions. For example: “What is your position on BLM?” The question is simple and yet the process of answering it is complex. Opinion polls have given a demographic picture of how certain answers will affect voting. So, the candidates are careful, calculated, in how they respond. Those who oppose the movement don’t want to be seen as racist. Those who support BLM don’t want it to be thought they support riots and violence.
The phenomenon does not just play out in politics. Businesses make important decisions, based not upon established principles or code of ethics, but what is best for the bottom line. Some add lip service to the latest social justice cause because they’re afraid of current cancel culture. For most of us, this calculation happens in our daily lives as well. In a toxic on-line environment, Facebook profiles and timelines are carefully curated. We learn to keep our most controversial comments and provocative posts to ourselves to avoid conflict. In a tense social situation, conversation is carefully monitored. We self-censor: “If I say this, then they will think this or do that, so I better say this instead.”
We live in a land of calculated responses. Which might seem necessary in the everyday work-a-day world but can be dangerous to our faith. We become so concerned we might offend someone when we confess what we believe that having a true conversation about faith is rare.
Now, such calculated measures of communicating are to be expected in politics. As a matter of fact, candidates who don’t have this kind of filter disturb a lot of people—even their own campaign staff and supporters. And, if we are wise, we will also be discerning in our everyday conversations and social media interaction. But, in matters of our faith, we must not be calculating, but bold.
Which is why I love this Gospel for today. Jesus invites us to practice a faith that is bold. He invites us to trust in Him, without calculations. You see, there is a difference between believing something because it brings about a particular result in your life and believing something regardless of the results it will bring.
Let me give you an example that Jonathan Fisk uses in his book Without Flesh. Imagine you are shown a folder that presents study after study done by reputable, world-class companies. These studies demonstrate beyond any reasonable doubt that preaching the texts of the Bible in today’s market conditions guarantees the emptying of the pews of your congregation. One hundred percent. There is no debate. The evidence is irrefutable. Jesus’ actual words not only will not grow your church—they will shrink it.
This is hypothetical, of course. There isn’t this kind of proof. But I want you to consider it a possibility for the sake of this question: If it were shown to be true, what would you do? Would you want the Scriptures preached anyway? It means your church will soon close. Do you still want to stand firm?
Now, let’s up the ante.
What if there was another folder? In this folder, there is further clear proof that this same tactic will not only empty your pews but will also put you on your government’s watch lists. It shows that clinging to the Bible’s words will not only put your local congregation in danger, but it will also threaten your mortgage. Your spouse’s ability to receive health care.
What if I showed you proof that continuing to attend your church’s services could reasonably get you killed? Would you still go? Would you still insist that the Scriptures be preached? Clearly? Irrevocably? Isn’t it amazing that this is a question that can even give us pause as we consider it?
Jesus invites us to believe in Him, regardless of the results that will follow.
We go back to Tuesday of Holy Week. “The last full working-day of our Lord’s public ministry to Israel ha[s] arrived… It [is] the busiest day of His life. It [is] His last day in the Temple, the last day of His teaching, the last warning He [gives] the Pharisees and Sadducees, and His last call to national repentance” (Fahling, quoted by Buls). Representatives of the Sanhedrin come to Jesus with a double question. What right does He have to preach as He does, do the miracles He did, enter Jerusalem as He did, cleanse the temple as He did? Furthermore, who gave Him this authority?
It is a blasphemous question because they already know the answer. Several months earlier, Jesus had told them, but they refused to believe (John 10:22-26). Now, the Sanhedrin—these chief priests and elders—have a perfect right to check on the religious life of the people and to question a religious teacher. But, on this occasion, the question is plainly malicious, which becomes clear as they proceed. They want to trap Jesus and thus bring a charge against Him. They reject His divine commission. And they expect Him to restate it as He did often before.
To their surprise, Jesus asks them a counter-question instead. It is by no means an evasion nor is Jesus turning them off. His answer is contingent on their answer. The true answer to Jesus’ question is also the true answer to the question of the religious authorities: “The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?”
Three years prior, the chief priests and the elders had sent a delegation to John asking about his person and his baptism. He gave them clear answers. All the people knew precisely what the mission of John was—He pointed to the Savior Who was about to fulfill all of God’s Messianic promises. His message was identical to that of Jesus. Here, in holy week, these religious leaders already know the correct answer to Jesus’ question.
But they are not concerned about truth. Rather than answer immediately, they need to calculate before they respond. Notice they do not take the time to discuss what they believe, but what the polls indicate. That is, they do not discuss whether John was sent from God or not. Instead, they discuss the merits of what happens if they say they believe one thing or another. Faith, for them, is a calculated social posture. What they truly believe doesn’t matter. What matters is what happens when they appear to believe one thing or another.
So they discuss it among themselves, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ He will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘From man,’ we are afraid of the crowd, for they all hold that John was a prophet.” In other words, “If we say, ‘from heaven,’ we’ll have to admit we’ve been wrong. We’ll lose face with the people. If we say, ‘from men,’ the crowd will have our skin.” What is decisive for them is not the truth, but the consequences involved in the two possible answers they could give. So, they answer Jesus, “We do not know.” And He says to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.”
They seek to entrap Jesus with calculated questions, He entraps them in their practice of a calculated faith. Though He “wins” the exchange, Jesus cannot be happy with the result. Jesus is not just engaging in a “power play” to ward off His enemies. If they had answered His question, they would have had their answer to Who He is and what He has come to do. Jesus’ question really is a call to repentance, an eleventh-hour invitation to believe in Him as Savior.
As social disapproval of Christianity grows in our nation, we are tempted to live a calculated faith as well. We feel the need to be careful when we share what we believe. Jesus, however, shows us where those who have a calculated faith end up: Trapped. They are unable to confess because of the complicated social situation and, therefore, unable to follow the Savior who comes to lead them into His kingdom of grace.
To such people, Jesus speaks a parable, a parable about words and deeds. The one son who calculates and says the right thing (“I will go and work”) is judged. Why? Because his relationship with his father is a matter of calculation. It is about saying the right words in the right moment. But his actions do not back up his words. He is a poser, a hypocrite.
For Jesus, faith is more than having the correct calculated response. Jesus does not want us to say we believe when we do not, to say we care for the poor when we do not, to say we honor marriage when we do not, to say we speak truthfully when we do not. Jesus has come to free us from the game of calculated responses. Instead, He invites us to follow Him. To live with Him in a freely given life of faithful response.
What does that look like? Jesus offers us a glimpse. He points to the tax collectors and prostitutes who are following Him. These are people that no one would expect to be children of God. Their lives are an open testimony against the will of their heavenly Father. But, by the power of the Spirit, something happens. They hear a call to repent and they do. They hear a call to follow and they do. Jesus brings a Word into this world that awakens people to life. It frees us from the games of calculated confessions and opens for us a life of uninhibited response.
In Jesus, God has entered our sin and by His death brought about forgiveness and by His resurrection given us a new life. This new life is transparent about who we are in the kingdom of God. We are not here by our own merit. We are here by grace and grace alone. Our lives then become an open witness to the grace of God and the work of Christ.
Tax collectors and prostitutes are suddenly role models in the kingdom. Those whom no one would associate with are suddenly leading the way into the kingdom of God. Why? They have experienced the working of God, the call to repentance, and they have responded in faith. It is not calculated faith, but simply faith. Faith that is not ashamed to be honest about one’s life and to believe the good news of God that one is forgiven for Christ’s sake, not for what one has said or done but for what has been done and said for you in Christ.
Christ has died and risen for you. He forgives you your sin and claims you as His own. This is the source of your life. Boldly make this confession, regardless of what follows.
We do not follow Jesus based on a calculation of the benefits. Rather, we follow because He is Jesus, our Savior. He forgives us our sin. He gives us a new life, a free life, a transparent life, a bold life, an uncalculated authentic life in Him.
So, go and speak and live as children of God. Not calculating what will happen to you in this world if you say you believe but believing regardless of what happens to you because by believing you have life in His name. Go in peace and serve your neighbor with joy. You are forgiven for all your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Based on an article by David Schmitt, published on Craft of Preaching, //www.1517.org/articles/gospel-matthew-2123-27-28-32-pentecost-21-series-a