Red Letter Year: 5/13

Matthew 21:18-32

18 In the morning, as Jesus was returning to Jerusalem, he was hungry, 19 and he noticed a fig tree beside the road. He went over to see if there were any figs, but there were only leaves. Then he said to it, “May you never bear fruit again!” And immediately the fig tree withered up.

20 The disciples were amazed when they saw this and asked, “How did the fig tree wither so quickly?”

21 Then Jesus told them, “I tell you the truth, if you have faith and don’t doubt, you can do things like this and much more. You can even say to this mountain, ‘May you be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ and it will happen. 22 You can pray for anything, and if you have faith, you will receive it.”

23 When Jesus returned to the Temple and began teaching, the leading priests and elders came up to him. They demanded, “By what authority are you doing all these things? Who gave you the right?”

24 “I’ll tell you by what authority I do these things if you answer one question,” Jesus replied. 25 “Did John’s authority to baptize come from heaven, or was it merely human?”

They talked it over among themselves. “If we say it was from heaven, he will ask us why we didn’t believe John. 26 But if we say it was merely human, we’ll be mobbed because the people believe John was a prophet.” 27 So they finally replied, “We don’t know.”

And Jesus responded, “Then I won’t tell you by what authority I do these things. 28 But what do you think about this? A man with two sons told the older boy, ‘Son, go out and work in the vineyard today.’ 29 The son answered, ‘No, I won’t go,’ but later he changed his mind and went anyway. 30 Then the father told the other son, ‘You go,’ and he said, ‘Yes, sir, I will.’ But he didn’t go. 31 Which of the two obeyed his father?”

They replied, “The first.”

Then Jesus explained his meaning: “I tell you the truth, corrupt tax collectors and prostitutes will get into the Kingdom of God before you do. 32 For John the Baptist came and showed you the right way to live, but you didn’t believe him, while tax collectors and prostitutes did. And even when you saw this happening, you refused to believe him and repent of your sins.”


Notice the progression of this passage. Jesus begins by doing something amazing (making the fig tree wither)  and then uses that to encourage his followers that they too can do amazing things like throw mountains into the sea. Next, the religious leaders demand to know what makes Jesus think he has the right to take over the Temple.  They were still incensed by the scene Jesus caused in the Temple the day before, disrupting normal business and filling the place with the blind and lame (who then did a lot of looking and dancing) and children running around singing. Jesus offers to answer if they can prove their question is a serious one, but it is not. Their question is only a veiled way of saying, ‘you can’t do that.’ Finally, Jesus turns the discussion away from what someone can or cannot do toward what one actually does with instructions given to them. In his parable, both sons were capable of doing the work, both were qualified and authorized, but only one chose to do the work.

I think the message for us is pretty clear. Jesus is telling us we can do a lot more than we think we can, while the religious forms we cling to assure us that we can’t even do the things that are on our hearts to do. Jesus empowers and authorizes. Religion disempowers and unauthorizes. The real answer Jesus would have given, the only possible answer for him to give, is that the authority rests in himself. He can’t appeal to anything beyond himself because there isn’t anything beyond himself. There is no law, rule, or principle more determinative than Jesus himself. Anything that tries to be so is an idol, a religious form that disempowers us. Jesus has already given us all the authority we need, all the authority he can give, in giving himself to us.

You already have all the authority, permission, and empowerment that you need. You don’t have to answer the question ‘what gives you the right’ anymore than Jesus did. He died and rose again so you don’t have to answer that question. You should surround yourself with friends who can help you discern what your work in the vineyard looks like, what ‘go’ means for you specifically. Those friends should begin with the assumption that you can throw mountains into the sea, not by grilling you for letting children sing. Stop waiting for permission and go ahead and do what the Father has already told you to do.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible. New Living Translation copyright© 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

2 thoughts on “Red Letter Year: 5/13

  1. Mike. I love this post. I love that passage and have never seen the progression that you bring out. This will preach, and I’m going to preach this in June. I’ve actually just been thinking about the passage where Jesus curses the fig tree—the symbol of all that religious authority that those around him rested upon—and he just dismissed it. I love it, and we need it.

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