Benjamin Franklin once said, “It is the first responsibility of every citizen to question authority.” Someone could make the case that our nation was founded in part on the principle of questioning authority. “Don’t just accept what your leaders tell you. Question them. Make them justify their legislation and law enforcement.”
There was an incident just days before Jesus’ crucifixion when the religious authorities asked him, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” (Matthew 21:23-27) What motivated the religious leaders to question Jesus’ authority during Holy Week wasn’t a fear of tyranny at the hands of Jesus. It was fear of losing their authority and power, their tyranny over souls.
Review the events that prompted the religious leaders to question Jesus’ authority. Jesus had just entered Jerusalem the day before to observe the Passover. He had gone to Jerusalem before, but this time the people welcomed him as “he who comes in the name of the Lord.” “Hosanna,” they said, “blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest.” They laid palm branches and their coats on the ground to welcome Jesus as they would a king. Jesus quoted Psalm 2 because even the children praised him, “Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise.’ Everyone was so excited to see him!…. Well, not everyone. Some, in fact, were quite troubled. They began to ask, “Who is this? Who is this who enters Jerusalem to the praise of the people? Who is this who is being hailed as king of the Jews?”
Later that day we now call Palm Sunday Jesus went to the temple. The blind and the lame came to him and he healed them. He also witnessed vendors who had set up shop in the temple courtyard. When he saw what they were doing, he got so angry that he turned over their tables. He said, quoting Scripture, “It is written ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you make it a den of robbers.”
The next day Jesus was in the temple again teaching. “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?” “These things” – in that little phrase the religious leaders in Jerusalem questioned Jesus’ entire ministry, everything he did and everything he said—from “man does not live by bread alone,” to “Lazarus, come out.”
“By what authority do you do these things?” It’s not a new question, is it? From the beginning people have questioned God’s authority in what he does and says. They question the authority he sets up in the home, the church, the school, the government. It’s what people do when pride takes over! They don’t want to submit. They want to have it their way!
The “Me Generation” wasn’t just the 70s, it’s every generation. You and I are continually asking the same question. “By what authority does anyone demand my allegiance and faithfulness? Why should I have to submit to the government with its restrictions? Why do I have to submit to silly workplace rules. By what authority does the Church demand my subscription to certain doctrines and practices?” By nature we challenge authority, God’s and everyone else’s.
It’s not a good place to be. Just look what Jesus said to the religious leaders. When they challenged his authority, Jesus turned the tables on them. He said, I will answer your question if you will answer my question. “The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?” Because of their pride they couldn’t say John’s teaching was from God because they’d then have to answer John’s call to repentance. And they couldn’t say John’s teaching was from men because the people believed he was a prophet and they feared the people. Caught between pride and cowardice. Whoops!
They could answer the question though. They could lie. They said, “we don’t know where John’s teaching came from.” And so Jesus withholds from them the answer to their question: “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.” Jesus’ silence is Jesus’ judgment. It’s a terrible thing when God does not speak his Word. As in the time of the judges when “the word of the Lord was rare” (1 Samuel 3) and “everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 17). Without God’s Word, there is confusion and chaos.
Jesus does speak to you today through his Word. He calls you to acknowledge and to submit to his authority for he is “the King of kings and the Lord of lords.” He is Lord of every aspect of your life. Consequently, when you, like the religious leaders, resist his authority, He calls you to repentance. Thank God Jesus doesn’t say to you and me now, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.”
Jesus’ understood authority, of course. Although he has divine authority over all creation, days after this incident took place, he would submit to human authority, even to the very people who questioned his divine authority. Your salvation was accomplished through the submission of the One who possessed “all authority in heaven and on earth.” He submitted to earthly authority by the authority of his Father, to whom he submitted, so that by obeying his Father, he might do for us what we had no power to do. He atoned for our sin—our rebellion against God’s will for our lives—so that by his power we might be saved.
Some people ask questions because they do not want to learn, but want to challenge and accuse. Our Lord is not controlled by anyone. Ultimately Jesus’ divine authority would be revealed once again in his resurrection from the dead. Jesus’ victory over sin and death throws open the doors of the kingdom of God to all people. Those who believe Jesus’ promise to forgive and save will enter his divine presence. And what’s more before he ascended into heaven he said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me, therefore go and make disciples by baptizing and teaching. And I will be with you to the very end of the age.” And so Jesus’ authority is exercised through us. The authority of Jesus is to forgive sin and serve sinners. Through Word and Sacrament the authority of Jesus goes forth through us so that we are able to forgive sin and soothe souls. Because Jesus is with even two or three gathered together in his name, we can intercede for others through the power of prayer. Jesus works through us when we help our neighbor through our holy works of humble service. Through our serving each other with the gospel Jesus is with us to the very end of the age. What authority! Jesus serves and blesses us through his Father’s will to be our Savior.
+ Pr. Jim Schulz
Is there a limit to forgiveness? Should a family say about the hardened murderer of the one they loved, “We forgive him.” Should a woman to say to her unrepentant, wife-beating husband “I forgive you.” Perhaps you are struggling with a family relationship where there’s bad blood. Someone has wronged you and you are carrying a grudge because of what was said or done. Should you just “forgive” that person and move on?
Maybe you thought to yourself as St. Peter expressed it to Jesus, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him?” (Matthew 18:21-35). Peter wonders whether there might be a limit to forgiveness, a time to to say, “That’s enough. I will never forgive you for what you’ve done!” Look at the context of Peter’s question. Jesus had just given the disciples a “how to” on dealing with someone who has sinned against another. Peter asks the follow-up question: “What happens when I talk to my brother who has wronged me or whom I have helped to confess and receive forgiveness for a sin and he goes right back to that sin or wrongs me again? I can envision him or her taking advantage of forgiveness.”
And therefore he wonders about a limit to forgiveness: “Would seven times be enough?” Peter thought that he was being generous. After all, the rabbis of his day taught that only three times were required. Peter was taking what the rabbis commanded, multiplying it by two, and adding one more for good measure! “Seven times,” Peter thought, “seven times should be plenty enough forgiveness.” But it was not enough for Jesus. In answer to how many times we should forgive, Jesus said, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” In other words, be always willing to forgive.
By nature we aren’t willing to forgive, are we? We’d rather get revenge. We don’t have a spirit of forgiveness that is ready, willing, and able to say, “I forgive you” and really mean it. It is a physiological fact that holding a grudge and hating people can cause ulcers, heart attacks, headaches, skin rashes, asthma, and even death! But what is most deadly is God’s attitude toward an unforgiving heart. Look in your heart right now and see if there is a grudge you need to confess and repent of.
To teach this point, Jesus told a story about a servant who owed his king ten thousand talents. That’s about the equivalent of ten million dollars. The king was ready to have the man, his wife, their children, and all their possessions sold to satisfy the debt. The man came to the king begging for more time to pay him back. The king was moved with compassion and so completely forgave the man his debt. What relief! What joy! But wait . . . That same servant had someone who owed him about twenty dollars. He seized this man by the throat and told him to pay up. And when his coworker asked for more time – just as he asked the king – this man who had been forgiven his debt of ten million dollars threw him into prison for failing to pay his debt of twenty dollars. When the king heard about this, he was enraged, called the man in again, and said, “Here I forgave all your debt because you pleaded with me, should you not have had mercy on your fellow servant as I had on you?” And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. Jesus’ conclusion to the story was no exaggeration: “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”
Why do we forgive? Because it is eternally deadly not to forgive. It can be a hard teaching for many people. You may say to yourself, “I just can’t forgive him. What he did to me is just too heinous, too horrible, done too often to forgive.” Sometimes our hurt can go so deep, we feel we cannot let go of it. But we can forgive and mean it. Why? Because God forgives and means it. The psalmist sang in Psalm 130, “If you, O Lord, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness.” God’s pardon has no limits. And that’s a good thing, isn’t it? Just look at our lives. We have ruined our relationship with God by repeated failure to live up to his standards. And yet he forgives us again and again.
Forgiveness is at the heart of Christian faith. It is at the center of everything we believe about Christ. But is Jesus saying we should forgive someone who is not sorry? Let’s understand something about when to forgive because there is some confusion in our society and in Christendom about how we get forgiveness. Is there a time when we shouldn’t forgive someone? Jesus instituted the Ministry of the gospel by telling the apostles “if you do not forgive sins, they are not forgiven,” (John 20:23) and that means there will be a time when a Christian does not forgive someone. When would that be?
First, we should be sure not to confuse being ready to forgive someone with actually forgiving someone who is impenitent. When people speak of forgiving someone who doesn’t want our forgiveness, we’re really talking about letting go of a grudge and loving someone whether they love you or not, whether they have asked for forgiveness from you or not. Forgiveness is more than that. Forgiveness is a proclamation of a reconciliation that puts differences aside, that everything is OK. Those who were estranged from each other, now are at peace with each other.
Second, receiving forgiveness requires repentance. That’s how it reads in the Bible. Whenever the word “forgiveness” is used, somewhere in the context is repentance. Look closely at the story of the unmerciful servant above. There was a desire to receive pardon. The story is about forgiving from the heart someone who has wronged us, not about forgiving someone even if they don’t ask for it. If someone has hurt you, wronged you, sinned against you, and that person is not repentant, does not admit sin or a desire for reconciliation, then we do not forgive, either when speaking to that person or when speaking to others about that person.
When do we not forgive someone? When someone is not bothered by a sin and would do it again without remorse. To forgive someone who is not sorry misleads that person into thinking God doesn’t take sin seriously. It’s not love to make someone think their relationship with God is OK when it is not because of impenitence. It’s really a selfish thing to forgive someone who is impenitent. It’s not so much an absolution of the offender as it is an excuse to avoid calling someone to repentance so that he might ask for forgiveness. Repentance and faith always precede the words, “I forgive you.” Forgiveness has not been received by everyone whether they know it or not, whether they believe it or not. Forgiveness is only received by faith.
To refuse forgiveness to someone is not the same as hating that person. We are always willing to forgive. We love the person who has wronged us. We even love our enemies. St. Peter later put it this way in his first epistle, “Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing” (3:9). Try this some time: Pray for blessings for your enemy. Pray that his children succeed. Pray that he get a raise at work. Pray those kinds of things and see how long you can hate your enemy. But that’s not the same as forgiving your enemy.
Forgiving someone, speaking a word of absolution, is the means to restore a broken relationship. It restores our relationship with God and with one another. To say “I forgive you” is to bring peace, harmony, and comfort to someone who is bothered by an offending sin. In the 5th Petition of the Lord’s Prayer we say “as we forgive those who trespass against us.” What that means is that God forgives us through the Word of another person. Like the bread and wine in Communion which communicate to us Jesus’ body and blood and along with it the forgiveness of sins, the words “As we forgive those…” is the sign that God speaks through person-to-person conversation, a verbal word where sound waves hit ear drums to communicate the forgiveness it speaks, hears, and receives through faith.
What a life-changing message that God has unlimited forgiveness! He sent his only Son to pay the penalty for our sin. He suffered hell so that we might enjoy heaven. The Word of forgiveness in Christ changes us because when we look at our failures, we can’t help but wonder if there should be a limit to God’s love for us. We know what he has done for us, and yet we keep on sinning. We keep on going back to those things which offend him. And when we realize and admit we have done wrong — again – we come to him in repentance and he tells us through a person who speaks his Word and administers his Sacraments: “I forgive you.”
Be ever willing to forgive. God is and God does by grace, through faith, and through the Word alone.
+ Pr. Jim Schulz