Episode 8 Transcript

Episode 8: By the Authority Vested


On playgrounds across the country, there are certain institutions, certain standards of practice, that are universally followed. At least they were in the 70s, when I was a daily observer and participant in those playground institutions. One of those was the authorized method for dividing into two teams.

In theory, this method led to two evenly matched teams. In practice, it was a sorting algorithm for making clear to everyone who was good, and who wasn’t. By the time the sorting was complete, everyone knew the dividing line between those who were picked because they were wanted, and those who were unwanted. Everyone knew their place.

I don’t remember a lot of details from those days. But I do remember the feeling of being in the crowd of players, hoping with all my might that someone would pick me.

Simeon: Matthew, I want to believe you. I really do. This is all very well thought out. Much better than I expected it would be. But look, the picture you’re painting of God is a very different picture than the one our traditions give us. I don’t know how to reconcile the fact that the God I know from Scripture cares deeply about the Law, and the God your Jesus talks about seems to have an entirely different set of priorities. These two can’t be the same God.

Matthew: It is most certainly the same God. He has not changed in the slightest. He is, after all, the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. His concern has always been for his children. All of his children. Our understanding of Him was more about who we wanted Him to be, who we needed Him to be, and not who He really was, who He really is.

The prophets were trying to tell us this. We just couldn’t see it. Not until Jesus made it all clear. 

Opening Titles:

This is—

Jesus for Sex Workers, Church People, and Me

A podcast hosted by Todd Austin

Episode Eight: By the Authority Vested

The Teaching

In this podcast we’ve been calling the Sermon on the Mount the constitution for the kingdom of heaven. The Sermon sets out the expectations Jesus has for those who will choose to enter this kingdom. And it tells us how this kingdom will be different from every other kingdom and nation.

As we move into the rest of Matthew, we’re going to see the practical application of this teaching. Jesus is going to show us what he means, and what he expects, by walking out this teaching himself. 

The religious leaders of his day felt like  they had a pretty good handle on the dividing line between those God would welcome into His kingdom, and those who would be left out. That dividing line was centered on obedience. On purity and compliance. On cleanliness before God.

Good church people today see things in much the same way. Although they would differ with the Pharisees in some of the variables, the formula would spit out the same answer. It would still be about obedience, purity, compliance and cleanliness.

So, will the first dozen or so people Matthew shows us after the Sermon on the Mount confirm or upend our expectations? When Jesus calls the name of those he wants on his team, who will they be? Who is the kingdom of heaven for?

Team Jesus

When we look at the cast of characters Matthew introduces us to in chapters eight and nine, this is who we meet:

A lonely man with a terrible skin disease; an enemy commander; an insignificant woman; two violent, threatening, out-of-their-minds gentiles; a regret-filled paralytic; a hated traitor and a bunch of his sinful companions; a religious leader who loves his daughter; a desperate woman who is an embarrassment to her community; a couple of blind beggars; and a demon-possessed man who can’t speak.

These are the people the kingdom of heaven is about. This is who the kingdom is for. These are the people Jesus chooses. When it came time to divide up into teams, he said to each of these, “I choose you.” 

These people, who were accustomed to being left out, shunned, skipped over, and forgotten, learn that this is no longer their story, their place. They aren’t the last-to-be-picked. Or the never-picked. These are the first people Jesus invites into the kingdom of heaven. 

This is probably not how you were taught to think about these people. Instead, I bet the focus was on what a great guy Jesus was, how compassionate he was to slow down from his important work— to make time for these people. 

We equate what Jesus is doing here with that one time a year we visit the old folks home and sing Christmas songs. But that misses the point. These are not people Jesus is slowing down for on his way to the real business of the kingdom. These people WERE the real business of the kingdom. And people just like these still ARE the real business of the kingdom.

There’s another way we miss Matthew’s point. We romanticize these people. We think of them as misunderstood. We tell ourselves these were all good people at heart, people who have fallen on hard times, people who don’t deserve their suffering. We tell ourselves that Jesus could see the condition of their hearts in spite of their circumstances, and that’s why he had compassion for them. 

We do this because we are driven to find a way to reconcile our expectations for who will be invited into the kingdom of heaven, with this cast of characters from Matthew. We need to believe these people are deserving—that they somehow fit our criteria for entry.

But these people do not fit. The Pharisees, the good church people of Matthew’s day, make this clear by their reactions. They, like us, think they know who the kingdom is for, and they are scandalized by the people Jesus is inviting in. 

The Pharisees question Jesus. They challenge him. They confront him. These cannot be the people God wants in his kingdom. In the end, they decide Jesus is either crazy, or that he must have a demon himself.

And the hard truth is, that’s exactly what good church people would think about Jesus today, if he showed up in jeans and a t-shirt and started extending his kingdom invitations in our communities.

We don’t run into lepers, centurions, synagogue leaders, and tax collectors in our everyday lives. But their modern equivalents are all around us. 

The Man with Leprosy, Today

Let’s go back to that first person Jesus encountered as he wrapped up the Sermon on the Mount, this unnamed man with leprosy at the beginning of chapter eight. The leprosy referred to here could be any number of skin diseases, and is probably not the Hansen’s Disease we call leprosy today. 

Under the statutes of the ancient Hebrew legal code, this man’s leprosy means he is ritually unclean. He is required to live outside the community, either alone or with others who share his condition. I doubt we can imagine the devastating harm such a condition would cause to a person and their family, harm well beyond the physical symptoms of the disease itself. 

This man calls out to Jesus, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean!”

That’s an interesting phrase, “if you are willing.” Why would the man think Jesus might not be willing?

Jesus touches the man, and tells him, “I am willing. Be clean.” Matthew tells us that immediately, the man was healed of his leprosy.

We see this man through a lens of compassion. We understand his issue to be fundamentally medical. In that assumption, we bring our modern, scientific perspective to his story. And so, once again, we are in danger of missing the point.

We need to remember that diseases like leprosy were understood to be the result of sin, typically the sin of slander in the case of leprosy. If you had leprosy, the fundamental issue wasn’t medical. Rather, it was that you were living in rebellion against the standards God had laid out for you. Your condition was not due to a random infection. It wasn’t a consequence of some mistake. It was punishment for sin. If you were cursed with leprosy, it was because you deserved it.

And that tells us why the man thought Jesus might not be willing to heal him. Because Jesus might not think he deserved to be healed.

So rather than taking our modern medical understanding into this man’s world, let’s try to translate his situation into our time and place.

The closest analog in our day would be the way almost all good church people would have treated a gay man with AIDS in the 80s and 90s. It was common then to hear religious leaders talk about AIDS as the “due penalty” for being gay. That AIDS was a curse from God sent specifically to punish the homosexual community. By that way of thinking, if you had AIDS, you deserved it. Just like the man with leprosy.

I would like to say that christians have left this heresy behind. But, truthfully, this is still the way far too many would view a gay man who is HIV positive today, almost 40 years later.

So you can see how good church people, just like the Pharisees, would be livid if Jesus, in his jeans and a t-shirt, having just finished the 21st century version of the Sermon on the Mount, went to this man first, this gay man with HIV, and invited him into the kingdom. 

“Lord, if you are willing…”

“I am willing…”

Some of you may be thinking that I’ve crossed a line here, that this is a bridge far, far, far too far. That substituting a gay man with HIV into this story in place of the leper is not a fair comparison. 

Why not? Is it because you think the gay man’s disease IS punishment for sin, while the leper’s is not? That Jesus healed the leper because he was innocently unfortunate, while the man with HIV deserves what he’s got?

If Jesus were walking around in jeans and t-shirt today, do you think he would refuse this gay man? Send him away? Tell him to clean up his act and come back another day?

You might want to think about that some more, in light of what we’re learning about Jesus. But, if you’re hell-bent on sticking with that perspective, then you need to stop reading Matthew right now. You’re not going to like what you find as we go deeper. And, if I were you, I would start getting ready for a very uncomfortable conversation you’re going to have with Jesus when you meet him face-to-face.

Mercy, Not Sacrifice

There is one more detail we need to spend some time on from the story of the man with leprosy. Matthew tells us that Jesus touches this man. Why is this detail important enough for Matthew to call it to our attention?

Maybe you’ve heard sermons about how beautiful it is that Jesus touches this untouchable man—this man who has been without meaningful human contact for so very long. I do think that is an angle of this story worth pondering. But there’s much more going on here.

According to the ancient Hebrew legal code, touching a leper makes someone guilty of violating the law, even if the touch was an accident. Here is the text from Leviticus 5:

If anyone becomes aware that they are guilty—…if they touch human uncleanness (anything that would make them unclean) even though they are unaware of it, but then they learn of it and realize their guilt; …— when anyone becomes aware that they are guilty in any of these matters, they must confess in what way they have sinned. As a penalty for the sin they have committed, they must bring to the LORD a female lamb or goat from the flock as a sin offering; and the priest shall make atonement for them for their sin.

Now, if you grew up in the church like I did, I bet this was not a passage you ever heard associated with the story of the man with leprosy. Jesus, who just 3 chapters ago says he has come not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it, now in chapter eight extends his hand, and, with full knowledge and forethought, intentionally touches a man who is unclean.

Perhaps you are tempted to explain this away. I used to have a study Bible where one of the notes tried to explain this by saying that Jesus actually healed the man a split second before he touched him, so that when he made physical contact the man was no longer unclean. 

Nothing in the text supports this fabrication. This is an example of adding something to the text to deal with a passage that makes us uncomfortable, that we can’t make fit with our assumptions, and it leads to missing the point Matthew wants to make.

And it’s a point Matthew makes emphatically in these two chapters, over and over. Jesus touches Peter’s mother-in-law, something most rabbis would never do, because if she was on her period she would be unclean and touching her would make the rabbi violate this statute.

The woman with the bleeding disorder is unclean because of her condition. When she touches the hem of Jesus’s cloak, she puts him in violation of this statute.

When Jesus takes the hand of the dead girl, he makes himself unclean by touching a dead body, in violation of this statute. 

Matthew tells us that Jesus can be found among sinners, Gentiles, tombs, pigs, and demons. These are not the places an observant rabbi would find himself. These are not the choices someone would make if they wanted to be careful about Leviticus five.

Matthew wants us to notice these things. These details are here for a purpose. He’s making an emphatic, explosive, world-changing point.

And, in case we are tempted to dismiss this point, Matthew makes it crystal clear when he tells us about the circumstances of his own invitation into the kingdom.

As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him.

While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. [You] go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

The kingdom of heaven is not about purity, compliance, and obedience. It’s about mercy. It’s about being perfect in the same way that God is perfect, where perfect means He sends rain for the righteous and the unrighteous.

Jesus is showing us what it looks like for love to be the fulfillment of the law. Love compels us to be with people, to welcome people, to help people, to share a table with people—people who, by the standards of good christian law keeping, would never be or feel welcome in our churches.

But these are the people the kingdom of heaven is for. These are the people Jesus came to call. The ones to whom he says, “I choose you.”

Matthew’s message here is pointed just as squarely at us today as it was the Pharisees then. Jesus tells us to go and learn what it means that “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”

And this is a lesson that is best learned by doing.


One of the methods we use to understand Scripture is to look for words, ideas or themes that are repeated. If we apply that method to this section of Matthew, one idea is going to stand out especially clearly: the idea of authority.

We don’t typically question Jesus’s authority to do the things he did. But when we put ourselves in Simeon’s shoes, we can start to see why Matthew thinks it is important. 

Jesus enters the scene and upends generations of accepted teaching on who God is and what he cares about. He talks about the importance of the law, and then gives a radical definition for what it means to fulfill it. He announces the arrival of the kingdom of heaven, and then invites the wrong people to enter it. It would be important for any faithful follower of God to know that Jesus truly had the authority to do these things.

We don’t need this assurance as much as Simeon may have, because we recognize Jesus as God in the flesh. Of course he had the authority to do those things. 

Our confusion about authority lies elsewhere.

When I was growing up in church, we believed there were Five Steps of Salvation taught in the New Testament. These five steps were what everyone had to do in order to fulfill the scriptural requirements to go to heaven.

In an interesting mathematical quirk, we said there were five steps, but when you counted them there were actually six. Don’t ask me why, because I don’t know. It wasn’t something we were supposed to question. For us, the five (-six-) steps were Hear, Believe, Repent, Confess, Be Baptized, and Remain Faithful.

One biblical passage that undermined the Five Steps was the story of the Criminal on the Cross—the man hanging on the cross next to Jesus, who was told he would be in paradise. Here we have someone who is granted admission into heaven, but who clearly did not put a checkmark next to each of the five, or six, required steps of salvation. The way we usually explained this unfortunate outlier was to say that since Jesus was God in the Flesh, he had the authority to make any exceptions that he wanted to. But the rest of us had to follow the five-, or six-, step pattern laid out in Scripture.

You may be hearing the whisper of that same idea when we talk about the man with leprosy, the man with HIV, and the sinners we meet in Matthew eight and nine. Jesus has the authority to make any exceptions that he wants to. He can forgive anyone he pleases. 

But we are not God. We don’t have the authority to do the same. And so, absent that authority, we need a set of guidelines, a standard, some kind of checklist, so we can know what is, and is not, ok with God. We want and need a legal code. But as we pointed out in earlier episodes, there is no clear legal code in the new covenant. The checklist we want, just is not there.

This conundrum creeps into conversations among good church people all the time. It usually gets to the point where someone says, “Well, I don’t have anything against such-and-such issue. But the question is does God have an issue with it? Because if He does, then I have to go with that.” 

The implication is that we need some clear scriptural authorization in order to be open to the idea that we can be merciful on some specific issue. It puts us in the absurd position of saying that we’re willing to be merciful on something if it’s up to us, but we’re not sure God will approve. As if we’re more merciful than He is.

So how do we truly follow the example of Jesus along the narrow way he walked out? We hear him say, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” We watch him apply it. But he has the authority to forgive the criminal on the cross, to be merciful, and we don’t.

Or, do we?

After carefully making sure that he establishes Jesus’s authority for all the unexpected acts of mercy we see in chapters eight and nine, Matthew tells us at the beginning of chapter ten that Jesus extends that same authority to his disciples. 

He sends them out to do the same mission he has been doing. To proclaim the kingdom he has been proclaiming. To go to the same kinds of people he has been seeking out. To do the same things for them that he has done. 

Jesus gives us the authority to follow in his footsteps. To do what we’ve seen him do. He says to them—to us—”Freely you have received. Freely give.” You have been shown mercy. Now extend that mercy to others.

We see this idea again in chapter sixteen. Peter has just confessed that Jesus is the messiah. Jesus is talking about his coming church. He says,

…the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.

We have been given the keys to the kingdom of heaven. The church—you and I—have been given the authority to bind and to loose. If we invite someone in, they are in. If we show mercy to someone, the gates of hell won’t be strong enough to hold them back. We have the authority to do what Jesus did.

We see it again in chapter 18. Right after a passage where Jesus talks about how he will leave the 99 behind and go find the one sheep that wandered away, and how he is not willing for any of these “little ones” to perish; and right before the passage where he tells Peter how many times he expects us to forgive someone, he has this little section on what to do when someone causes harm, when they sin.

Is there a legal code somewhere we’re supposed to follow? A decision tree set down in scripture that tells us how to handle each sin? No. In effect he says, you decide what to do.

Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.

“Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”

Jesus says, I’ve given you an example, follow my lead. Don’t worry about stepping out of bounds. I’ll back you up. And, just in case we are tempted to be harsh, or to throw the book at them, the rest of the chapter doubles down on the bias for mercy.

This is the standard the Jerusalem church is following in Acts 15 when they learn of Gentiles who are coming into the kingdom without first converting to Judaism. Which of the 613 Jewish laws should be extended to these new inhabitants of the kingdom? The Jerusalem church decided to loose many things, and to bind only a handful. They wrote:

It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things.


It’s instructive to note that the four things they bind come from the standards in Leviticus 17 and 18 for foreigners who live in Jewish lands. Binding these standards will allow Jewish believers who observe the Law to associate with these new gentile citizens of the kingdom, without violating their conscience. In other words, the things they bind are about fostering and preserving love.

This same principle of binding and loosing is guiding Paul in Romans 14. The church he is writing to has been fighting over whether or not some specific guidelines under the Law are still required. Are these things fundamental to what God expects? Do we have authority to bind and to loose here? Or not?

This was an issue where only one side could be right. But Paul says the issue is not who is right and who is wrong. Both groups are serving Jesus, and he is able to make them stand, even the group who gets it wrong. Again, Jesus has your back. The real issue, for Paul, is that each side must treat the other with love and mercy. 

This authority to bind and to loose, to show mercy, permeates the pages of the New Testament. We don’t see it, because we’ve been looking for the rule book. But it’s right there, in plain sight. Even in the Great Commission:

Jesus… gave his charge: “God authorized and commanded me to commission you: Go out and train everyone you meet, far and near, in this way of life, marking them by baptism in the threefold name: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Then instruct them in the practice of all I have commanded you. I’ll be with you as you do this, day after day after day, right up to the end of the age.”

The question isn’t do we have the authority to do what Jesus did. We do. The question is, given Jesus’s teaching on the Mercy Principle, and what he said about the measure we use for others being the measure that will be used for us, who will we dare refuse mercy to in his name?


Simeon, we were always proud that our nation was established to be a blessing to all people. Somewhere along the way, we got the idea that the way this would work was that everyone would become like us. That people would either choose to join us, or that we would conquer them and force them to join us. 

We didn’t pay attention to what was really going on in the story of Jonah. We were enamored with the fish and the three days. But we missed what God was doing for the people of Nineveh. We missed that He was gracious and merciful to these people who did not follow our law. And so, just like Jonah, we get bent out of shape at the very idea that God might invite someone in who isn’t worthy.

Jesus came to announce that God is calling his children in from the East and the West. All of his children. All of the Tamars, the Rahabs, the Ruths, and the Bathshebas. And He has a place reserved for each of them at the big table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. 

Test This Teaching

If, like me, you grew up as a good church person, the Jesus we’re seeing in Matthew may be startling, even unsettling. This Jesus makes us question the very foundations of what we thought we knew. Rightly so. The real Jesus is always surprising. Just ask John the Baptist. 

At the beginning of chapter 11, John is confused by what he has been hearing about Jesus. Like us, the audacity of what Jesus is teaching startles him. It doesn’t align with his expectations. He sends a message to Jesus, asking if he really is the Messiah. 

Jesus sends a message back to John, where he essentially says, “Hey, John, you need to test this teaching. Compare what I’m doing to what the prophets said would happen. I think the answer will be self-evident.”

And that, my friend, is what you need to continue to do with the content of this podcast. You need to test it.

And the test isn’t, does this picture of Jesus conform to your expectations? If John the Baptist can be shaken up by what he sees Jesus teaching, then surely you can be, as well. 

No, the test continues to be, is what I’m teaching true to the content and intentions written down in the Gospel of Matthew? 

Is the Kingdom of Heaven only for the righteous? Or did Jesus come to invite in a larger audience? 

Does the commission Jesus gave us include the authority to bind and to loose? Or is there a set of legal guidelines written down somewhere that I’m not telling you about? 

Are mercy and love the fundamental traits Jesus is looking for from us? Or is it really about compliance after all?

The second test, as I hope you’ve come to expect, is this: If you apply this teaching to your life, will it make you look more, or less like Jesus? The application of any true teaching will lead us to becoming more and more like Jesus.

At the end of chapter eleven, Jesus gives us these famous words:

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

We love these words. But we don’t believe them. We’ve changed this teaching. We add a condition at the beginning. What we say is “First, clean up your life. Stop sinning. Get your act together. Once you do that, then you can come to Jesus, and he will give you rest.” 

The Pharisees would have been thrilled with that message. But that’s not what Jesus said. And that’s not what Jesus meant. Just ask the dozen or so people we met in this section of Matthew, who unexpectedly found themselves holding a golden ticket into the kingdom of heaven. We need to take this teaching to heart.

OK, that’s enough for today. In the next episode we’ll look at this kingdom of heaven more closely. I hope you’ll join us. Thanks for listening.

Closing Credits

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