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Christ Crucified: We Obey

The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, 1 October 2017

A Sermon on Matthew 21:23-32 by Samuel Zumwalt

Matthew 21:23-32 © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers]

 23 And when he 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?” 24 Jesus 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. 25 The 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?’ 26 But if we say, ‘From man,’ we are afraid of the crowd, for they all hold that John was a prophet.” 27 So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things. 28 “What do you think? A man had two sons. And he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ 29 And he answered, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he changed his mind and went. 30 And he went to the other son and said the same. And he answered, ‘I go, sir,’ but did not go.31 Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you. 32 For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him. And even when you saw it, you did not afterward change your minds and believe him.


Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Baptized into the Lord Jesus’ death and resurrection, you are a child of God. Before you were baptized, you were created in His image and you were one for whom the Lord Jesus died, but you were not yet a child of God. When people say the unbaptized are God’s children, too, they are uninformed. In the waters of Holy Baptism, we are reborn as children of God. If you are unbaptized or your child is unbaptized, why do you wait? A child dedication is not the same thing as a child Baptism. Why? Holy Baptism is God’s saving work where He joins us to the death and resurrection of His Son Jesus. Scripture is very precise on what Baptism is and does!

So, then, if you are baptized, male or female, you are a “son” of God, as St. Paul teaches in Romans 8. Joined to the Lord Jesus’ death and resurrection, you become God’s beloved “son” for Jesus’ sake. The Father looks at the righteousness of His Son even unto death, and He calls the baptized “His beloved son” for Jesus’ sake. Think, then, of the Baptism of Jesus (Mk 1:11) as the prototype for Christian Baptism, which does not begin until the day of Pentecost as Acts 2:41 describes. John the Baptist was not doing Christian baptisms in the Jordan River. He was doing the Jewish cleansing ritual known as a “tevilah,” which in our day takes place in a “mikveh,” a ritual bathing pool. The Greek verb “baptizein” means to wash with water, and this was the verb used for ritual washing in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible in use in the first century. The Septuagint is often quoted in the Greek New Testament when quoting the OT.

“Who, then, is a child of God” is one question lurking beneath today’s Gospel lesson. As God’s first son (Exodus 4:22), Israel is represented in today’s Gospel lesson by the chief priests and elders who question God’s Incarnate Son, Jesus, about His authority. We could talk a while about the confusion many have between “authority” and “power” (Jesus has both!), but here in Matthew 21, those having authority to act as priests and those having authority to rule over Israel in the Sanhedrin are telling Jesus that He doesn’t have authority. They are telling Jesus that He isn’t authorized to forgive sins and to teach and do as He teaches and does. Asking the question “By what authority” already assumes this Galilean rabbi has no business doing as He does. They are telling Jesus: “God has given us authority…not You!”

An old saying applies here. Ask a rabbi a question, and he will answer you with another question. The Lord Jesus immediately responds with a “By what authority” question of His own. “By what authority was John baptizing in the wilderness?” The chief priests and elders gather together for a discussion. With a finely-tuned political awareness, they recognize this rube of a rabbi from Galilee is cleverer than they had presumed. “If we answer one way, then this. If we answer the other way, then that. So our best answer is to say, ‘We don’t know.’”

So the Lord Jesus lets them know He can play that game, too. “Well, then, I won’t answer your question either. But I will tell you a story!” Now, traditionally, rabbis teach either by “Halakhah” (straight forward teaching on the Law) or by “Haggadah” (story-telling). So, then, Rabbi Yeshua (the Lord Jesus) tells them a story about two sons. The Lord Jesus is asking them more than “Which son are you?” He is asking, “What does it mean to be God’s son?” Or better yet, “How does God’s son act?”

You can imagine that, as the Lord Jesus tells this short parable about two sons, the religious leaders are torn between the simplicity of Jesus’ story, and, at the same time, the content of the story. To talk about a vineyard has to cause them discomfort, for the prophet Isaiah had told a famous story about a vineyard in Isaiah 5. It was a word of judgment against God’s people for their failure to keep covenant with God. They did not listen to God or obey.

That’s the heart of Jesus’ parable: God’s Son listens to God and obeys. That, of course, is precisely what John the Baptist’s ministry was about as he prepared the way for the Coming One. John called God’s son Israel to repent – to turn around – to have a change of heart and mind. John was utterly consistent with the prophetic message throughout the Hebrew Bible. Think of the prophet Joel’s words which we say during Lent: “Return to the Lord, your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love…” (Joel 2:13).

We could talk for a while about the loss of the prophetic voice in Israel after the Babylonian Exile and how the priests and the sacrificial rites of the Temple had come to dominate the life of God’s people. Doubtless the chief priests and elders recognized that John was indeed a prophet like those of old, and, not knowing quite how to characterize God’s Son Jesus, they assumed He also was a self-styled prophet who had come to question their authority.

So, as if to say, “How utterly unimaginative and unschooled you are, Rabbi Yeshua,” they answer quickly: “The first son did the will of his father. Any child can see that.” The Lord Jesus responds, “So, then, how is it that the most public of sinners responded to John by repenting, but you religious experts have not listened and obeyed the Word spoken by John?” They, of course, did not respond to the Lord by singing “What a friend we have in Jesus!”

There is only one obedient Son of God, who listens and obeys. This is the point of the hymn we hear in Philippians 2 today: “…Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,  but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (2:5b-8).

Therein lies the truth about not only the chief priests and elders but also you and me. We are not an obedient son like God’s Son Jesus. If we were such an obedient son, we would have no need for a Savior. This is why the Lord Jesus came first to His own people and then sent His apostles even to the nations (the Gentiles), to all ethnic groups. Apart from God’s obedient Son Jesus, all of us stand alone before our heavenly Father on our own two feet and with the look and smell of our disobedience all over us. We didn’t listen to John. We didn’t listen to God’s Son.

Why do Christians baptize everyone, whether Jewish or Gentile? Sonship is more than skin deep. Circumcision for Jewish males is the mark of the old covenant, which only God’s Son Jesus keeps perfectly. He loves His Father and His neighbors completely by giving His own life as the sacrificial Lamb, as the Suffering Servant, who bears the sins of the world on His cross. By His dying God’s obedient Son Jesus destroys the power of sin, death, and the old evil foe. By His rising from the tomb, He is exalted by His Father as Lord to the glory of His Father. Joined to His saving death and glorious resurrection in Holy Baptism, we become “sons,” the children of God. The Lord Jesus teaches us to pray to His Father that we might do His Father’s will!

Holy Baptism is no mere water ritual. It is not an outward sign of an inward action. Baptism is a way of life as we daily turn back to our Father in repentance. Baptism is a way of life as we daily rise from the kind of destructive identity politics, that utter self-centeredness, that is ripping apart homes, relationships, and indeed this nation and world. If you are yet living at home with your parents, you obey them as God’s gifts to you. If you are living alone, you obey your Father in heaven, because that is the path of limitless humble service taken by the Son into whom you have been baptized. If you are living with a spouse and/or with children, you obey your Father in heaven by keeping your marriage vows, by having your children baptized, and by teaching them to observe all that the Lord Jesus has commanded. Just as the obedient Son of God emptied Himself and took the form of a servant even unto death, so that is how Christians live!

In today’s Gospel lesson, and in the Lord Jesus’ parable, there is a cautionary tale. A son does His Father’s will. All attempts to rewrite this parable by ignoring masculine language, all attempts to rewrite God’s Word by ignoring His stated will, all attempts to rewrite God’s Word so that it remains favorable and affirming to us just the way we are – these are exactly the work of the disobedient son in the parable who says “yes” to placate and goes on to do as he pleases!

Remember this, then, dear ones. Today when the baptized eat the Host and drink the Cup or dip the Host into the Cup before eating, we are truly receiving God’s own Son, the Lord Jesus. Those who repent of their sins have His promise of forgiveness, life, and salvation. Those who do not repent are known in utter disobedience to the Father. Unwisely, they stand on their own apart from the only obedient Son of God. Let none of us disdain God’s grace and mercy. Listen!

In the name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

©Samuel D. Zumwalt, STS

St. Matthew’s Evangelical Lutheran Church

Wilmington, North Carolina USA

Bulletin Insert (see below)

Christ Crucified: We Obey


O God, you declare your almighty power chiefly in showing mercy and pity: Grant us the fullness of your grace, that we, running to obtain your promises, may become partakers of your heavenly treasure; through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen” (The Daily Prayer of the Church, 621).


Matthew 21:23            “ …By what authority are you doing these things…”

St. Hilary [4th century Bishop of Poitiers (France); “the Athanasius of the West”]: “Prior to this, the Pharisees had seen many things more worthy to be called great miracles, but now they were deeply troubled and asked Jesus to identify the authority by which he performed these works. The great mystery of the future is included in the consequences of present deeds. They felt the urge for special questioning, then, because the prefiguration of every danger was made known in this event ” (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Matthew 14-28, 133).

Matthew 21:29  “And he answered, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he changed his mind and went.”

Incomplete Work on Matthew (5th century commentary): “’Which of these two did the will of the Father?’ They replied ‘the first.’ Notice how…attracted by the truth of the parable, they turned its meaning against themselves when they said that the first son, who represented the pagan Gentiles, had done the will of the father. It is better to do the righteousness of God without promising to do so than it is to promise and then to renege” (136).

Matthew 21:31            ” Which of the two did the will of his father?”

St. Hilary of Poitiers: “Urgently admonished by God through the prophecy of John to conform themselves to his commandments, they remained insolent, disobedient and contemptuous to God’s warnings. They put their faith in the law and despised repentance from sin, glorying instead in the noble prerogative that they had from Abraham. Later they came to believe through the miracles worked by the apostles after the resurrection of the Lord…”(136).

Matthew 21:31       “…the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you.”

St. John Chrysostom [late 4th – early 5th century Patriarch of Constantinople]: “The publicans [tax collectors] were attentive and repented, but even after the publicans and harlots had believed, you did not believe. You should have repented long before they did. But you did not do it. So you are deprived of all excuses. How unspeakable was both the praise of the one and the charge against the other..Note in how many ways he shows that some are to be commended…” (137).



  1. How do I resist and even rebel against the Lord’s authority over me and all things? How is it that those who have fallen the farthest and the most understand grace better than me?


The Ten Commandments (from Luther’s Small Catechism)

As the head of the family should teach them in a simple way to his household.

The Fifth Commandment

You shall not murder.

What does this mean?

We should fear and love God so that we do not hurt or harm our neighbor in his body, but help and support him in every physical need.


  1. Pray for every unbaptized child you know and for the child’s parents, too.


  1. Pray for your unchurched loved ones and friends. Invite one or more of them to worship.


  1. Discuss with your spouse, your family, or a friend how the 5th commandment calls more for positive action on our part so that our neighbor’s basic needs are met.


  1. Visit the Lutherans for Life website at Learn more about how to be pro-life(long)! Consider making a contribution to support this great ministry.


  1. Join with the Zumwalts and other Christians in forming a Life Chain on Sunday, October 1, from 2:30-3:30 p.m. out in front of St. Matthew’s.


  1. Agree to pray daily for those who are pregnant. Visit the website for Lifeline Pregnancy Center at Think about how you could help.


For Husbands and Wives

Repeat daily: “I (name) take you (name) to be my wedded wife (husband), to have and to hold from this day forward; for better, for worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health; to love and to cherish until death do us part, according to God’s holy ordinance, and thereto I pledge you my faith.”