I love this passage! I love it because I love the way Jesus answered the chief priests, teachers of the law and the elders who questioned him. You can just feel the atmosphere, here’s Jesus, back in Jerusalem, in the temple courts where he’d caused such a ruckus on a previous visit. He’d caused mayhem by turning over the tables –
I wonder if the traders had gone back to what they’d done before, or if they moved their trading stalls elsewhere? Either way, the authorities would be quite nervous at having him there because they knew that the general public was quite well disposed towards him, delighted to listen to him speaking.
If he’d wanted to stir up trouble, it wouldn’t have been hard for him to do.
So they sidle up to him and ask “By what authority are you doing these things? And who gave you authority to do this?” … so that implies, although it doesn’t state it outright, that things had changed in the outer temple. Maybe Jesus’ actions had given the Gentiles more confidence about claiming their space to worship in their courtyard. And I wonder what tone of voice they used to ask the question – in a kind of quiet, anxious whisper behind a hand? Or loudly spoken, arrogantly challenging by their tone?
I love Jesus’ reply, he answers a question with a question: “John’s baptism – was it from heaven, or from men?” And for good measure, he says, “Tell me!” He’s not giving them three days to go off and think about it.
But they do have a discussion and think it through
– and their logic was good. “If we say ‘From heaven’, he will ask us why we didn’t believe him (John the Baptist, that is). It’s interesting here, because Jesus isn’t seeking to take the glory, he knows that the power of John the Baptist, and his own power and authority, came from God. And it is that power that he seeks to impress on the authorities. But the authorities haven’t finished their discussion. “If we say ‘From men ..’” well, they didn’t dare entertain that thought, because so many people we supporting Jesus, and believed in him. He had authority not so much over the people as with the people, though he never sought to exercise his authority in the way the people wanted him to, the way they expected their king to, and was the way the chief priests and the rest were probably fearful that he might. Because he could have stirred up a mighty throng, had he wished to. And they knew the people were quite sure in their minds that John was a prophet, and received his power from God.
Jesus had the chief priests caught between a rock and a hard place.
So, befuddled and unwilling to take a stand, they resorted to the fence:
“We don’t know”. I wonder if it was beginning to dawn on them who he really was, and by what authority he spoke. But to entertain that would have been such a challenge to them, it would have upset the whole system.
Jesus, seeing their discomfort and their disinclination to take a stand either way, said “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.” If they’d taken a stand either way, he had something to work with, an idea to explore and discuss with them – and no doubt challenge, because that’s what he was good at doing! But they don’t give him that option, and he wants them to work it out for themselves. So it’s a case of “Well, go away and think about it, and when you’ve decided, come back and we can talk about it some more.”
There would be nothing more challenging to the chief priests and the rest than to see someone who didn’t claim any status, but who could still gather a crowd who wanted to hear him, with no difficulty at all. He didn’t have to send people out to find “Rent a Crowd” to listen to him – it was quite the opposite, sometimes he longed to get away, but the crowds followed on wherever he went, wanting to hear anything he said, see anything he did, because it was all so amazing. And in the days before loudspeakers, it word would have been passed through the crowd “What did he say?” “He said …”, a ripple effect, like a pebble in a pond.
I love Jesus’ reading of the chief priests, it would have been so easy to just put them in their place, but he didn’t do that. In a way, he met them on their own level, he made them think it through for themselves. And I love it because it was exactly the response they needed, if he’d said anything about where his authority had come from himself, for a start he’d have been arrested for taking the name of the Lord in vain. And it would have given them a great debating topic then. But like Ray said last week, it would have been all show and no heart. The debate would have been an intellectual one, not one which was going to affect hearts and lives. We come across people like that sometimes, who ask every question in the book, especially tricky ones, really just to wind us up, to tie us in knots, not because they really want to know, but just to see our discomfort. And at times like that, I wish I had Jesus’ insight and way with words, to know what to say that would really get to the heart of the matter.
What does this all mean for us?
1. Well, I hope you find Jesus as compelling as the crowds of people we read of in the Gospels.
They desired to hear more from him, to see him act, to follow him. They followed him with the devotion that today we think of when we think of the crowds that follow pop starts or top flight football players, although with them the following although intense, doesn’t reach the depths of our soul the way following Jesus does.
2. Another thing. Are WE sitting on the fence, not really sure what we think about Jesus and his authority, or about some issue to do with our faith.
I mentioned that when Jesus challenged the chief priests and elders to come out and say, to acknowledge, who he was and where his authority was from, they said , “We don’t know”, and Jesus couldn’t have any further conversation with them.
It’s really encouraging to have had such a good response to the offer of the Alpha course, because that is one place where it is possible to discuss what we really think. Bible study groups are another place this happens.
We have our discussion time so we can work out what we think of Jesus and his teachings and his example. It’s not straightforward. Someone said to me this week that it would be helpful if God sent us a note every now and again to explain things, or to tell us what to do in a tricky situation. But he doesn’t! We work out our salvation with fear and trembling, as it says in Phil. 2.12. You see, if we haven’t worked out what we think of him, or some of the issues that challenge us, it’s hard for him to take that relationship, that discussion, any further with you. He doesn’t want to impose himself on us, he wants us to come to him out of desire in our own hearts.
3. Do we accept the authority of Jesus and his teaching in all areas of our lives?
We see in the world around us now what happens when people don’t accept authority – the authority of scientists is being undermined in some quarters about climate change in spite of David Attenborough’s amazing wild life programmes, and his statement to the Climate Change Conference this week. We see some people who do not accept the authority of the police, or the law of the land, when we read about the extent of knife crime, or the recent demonstrations and riots in France. We have to accept some authority – it could be a set of standards we have in our hearts, or an external authority, like leaders in any sphere, at work, at home, at Church – for society to function effectively. With small children, we see the effect of having no respect for authority – ask the parent of any two year old and you’ll find out how quiet and ordered life simply isn’t when their child is mid-tantrum. But the greatest authority for us Christians, is …. Christ.
And I know one of my unspoken prayers to Jesus is to give me the kind of insight and words that Jesus had when I need to answer an awkward question or make a contribution to a discussion or debate, not being frivolous, or saying something for the sake of saying it, but to help get to the heart of the matter, and make a contribution to resolution of the matter in question.
Let’s take a moment to think about these things,
is there a situation where you want to Jesus’ insight and words and authority to help.