“They came again to Jerusalem. As he was walking in the temple, the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders came and asked him, ‘By what authority are you doing these things? Who gave you this authority to do these things?’ Jesus said to them, ‘I will ask you one question; then answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things. Was John’s baptism from heaven or of human origin? Answer me.'” (CSB – Read the chapter)
Hypocrisy is something we see all too often today. Especially in our politics. It’s enough to make people cynical. Supporters of one candidate or another are willing to excuse even the most egregious behavior when their side does it, but rail long and loud about the character flaws of the other side when the fault is discovered on the other side of the line. A prominent Democrat politician recently referred to people with a mental handicap as “retarded.” A major media outlet merely tweeted a gentle chiding that he had used an “outmoded” word and that was the end of the issue. Let there be no doubt that if a prominent Republican politician had done the same thing there would have been immediate calls for his resignation from the same media outlet because of his obvious inability to care about the people he serves. At the same time, the position of evangelical Christians on whether or not sexual misdeeds should disqualify someone from public office did a complete 180 degree shift when they needed to justify their support for Trump’s presidency from where it had been during Clinton’s tenure. As disgusting as this rank duplicity is, there is nothing new under the sun. It met Jesus as soon as he walked into the temple. Let’s talk about how He dealt with it.
The religious leaders were desperately looking for a way to discredit and embarrass Jesus. They didn’t like Him to start with, but His display in the temple the day before had really set them off. They needed to find some line of attack that would give them an edge. As Jesus was walking around the temple the day after driving out the moneychangers and traders, a group of the religious elite met Him in a mass and demanded to know where He got off doing what He had done. Who gave Him the authority to do such a thing? Who gave Him the authority to do and say the things He had been doing generally?
While this would have been an imposing and a bit of an ad hoc group (you can almost imagine this as a scene from a classic western), they were almost certainly well-prepared for the moment. They had put their great minds together and considered every possible answer He could have given. For each possibility they were prepared with a rebuttal. Had Jesus said something about His authority being in the Scriptures, they were going to pick apart His interpretation. They were experts in doing that. Had He cited a person, they were ready to discredit the person entirely. Had He said it was God, they were prepared to use their understanding of the Law to show how it couldn’t have been God. They were ready for anything…except what Jesus actually said. They weren’t prepared for Him to ask them a question first; particularly this question.
This brings us to Jesus’ question. Why this question? Was He just trying to distract them? No. Instead, He wanted to test them. He knew they were trying to trap Him and so He constructed a counter trap on the spot. He knew they didn’t believe His authority came from God (even though He knew that it did). I think He really would have answered their question if they had given Him a reasonable answer to His question. What He was doing with this question about their understanding of the authority of John the Baptist was seeing if they were capable of recognizing God’s work at all.
You see, everyone understood where John’s authority originated. He was sent by God. Period. There was a reason thousands upon thousands of people had gone out to see him teach and to be baptized by him. Even some of these very religious leaders had perhaps gone out to be baptized by John (and been called out on the carpet by him when they did).
As Mark continues to relate, though, the religious leaders immediately recognized the trap Jesus now had them in. No matter how they responded, Jesus had them right where He wanted them. Had they affirmed what everyone there believed about John, they knew Jesus would immediately question them on why thy were so opposed to Him when John had said about Him the things that He did. If, on the other hand, they denied John’s clear divine commission, they would have lost the people to Jesus even more. He would have pounced and said, “If you can’t recognize God’s authority when it’s right in front of your faces, how are you going to recognize whether or not it is operating through me?” They knew they were trapped and so took the only out that allowed them to save a bit of face: they played dumb. They had lost this confrontation and took the only route that allowed them to minimize their loss.
So, what do we do with this exchange? What deep, spiritual truth is hiding in these words for us to uncover? While we could try and dig in to find one, this morning I’d rather pick up what’s sitting right on the surface for anyone to see. Jesus was really smart. Like, genius level smart. This group of men confronting Him represented some of the brightest and best minds in the whole of Israel. There may have been a few dummies who were there only because of the family connections they had, but this group had access to the best educational resources in the nation. They had studied the Law harder and with better teachers than anyone else in the world. They knew it inside and out; backwards and forwards. They had studied reason and rhetoric. They could out-debate anyone. Anyone else in Jesus’ shoes would have been quaking in fear at the very sight of them. You or I would have been reduced to a stammering mess. But not Jesus.
He stood with a quiet confidence, met their eyes, and turn the tables around on them entirely. He was smarter than they were. These guys weren’t going to get Him like this. Here’s what that means for us: Following Jesus isn’t just something for dupes and dummies. While the Gospel is simple enough that the youngest child can understand and embrace it, there is no bottom to the depth of thinking you can bring to it. There isn’t anyone too smart for Jesus. Anyone who thinks otherwise is standing in the same place as these religious leaders. And they will wind up with the same egg on their face when they try and prove themselves smarter. Jesus, friends, is for everyone. I hope you’ll have Him.