In Matthew 21:23 – 32, the chief priests and elders ask Jesus two direct questions. “By what right are you doing these things?” and “Who gave you this right?” They are questions about authority. In the religious system of Jesus’ day, the chief priests and elders of the people had authority to speak on God’s behalf. Jesus wasn’t a part of that system. Yet, the things he did and taught had all the marks of the authority and authenticity and liberating power of God. This made the religious system anxious. After all, what if the people decide that they don’t need the religious system and follow after this upstart, Jesus? What seem like good questions (especially to people in authority) are more statements for public consumption. In essence they were saying, “Jesus, you have no authority!”
Jesus responds the way good rabbis often responded. His question, when answered honestly, does answer their questions. He asks, “Where did John’s baptism come from? Was it from God or from this world?” Jesus wants to know how they understand John’s authority – is it from God or earthly systems of power?
This puts the chief priests and elders in a bind. If they say from God then Jesus will rightly ask why they didn’t believe him and participate in what John was doing? If they say from earthly systems of power (i.e. not God) then the people will turn on them. The problem is that it was pretty clear that John’s authority came from God. Everybody understood that – even the chief priests and elders. They just couldn’t admit it without loosing a bit of their own power and control.
Some say that Jesus put the chief priests and elders between a rock and a hard place. I would say that Jesus asked an honest question that they were unwilling to answer truthfully. Jesus didn’t put them between a rock and a hard place, they put themselves there. The reality is, that is where they lived because they were unwilling to be honest and forthright about something they could’ve clearly answered.
To claim you are leaders of God’s people – and not be able to do the one thing God requires of you (i.e. point out when and where God is at work) is like a son who says, “Sure, dad, I’ll do the work you ask of me” and then ignore that work. The chief priests and elders could’ve easily said that John’s baptism was from God. But in answering truthfully, they would have also had to say that Jesus’ ministry was from God as well.
In an ironic twist, those on the margins – the tax collectors and prostitutes – had no problem being honest about John’s authority and Jesus’ authority. These are the ones that, from all outward appearance, had said “No” to God. But had they really? In the end they were the ones who had the courage to tell the truth – to believe and bear witness. They did what the Father wanted.
As you think about questions of inclusion and exclusion; God and culture; “sinners” and the church; insiders and outsiders remember this text and Jesus’ message to those who were certain they were right and the truth revealed by those who, while being told they are wrong, none-the-less were ready, willing and able to embrace what God was doing in their midst.
[originally published in the 9/28/2014 edition of The Weekly, Metamora Mennonite Church]