They arrived again in Jerusalem, and while Jesus was walking in the temple courts, the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders came to him. “By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you authority to do this?”
Jesus replied, “I will ask you one question. Answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. John’s baptism—was it from heaven, or of human origin? Tell me!”
They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin’ …” (They feared the people, for everyone held that John really was a prophet.)
So, they answered Jesus, “We don’t know.”
Jesus said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.” (NIV)
Because Christ is Lord, we might overlook that Jesus, in his earthly ministry, was an outsider. Although a teacher, a rabbi, Jesus was neither a priest nor a member of any Jewish religious sect. He walked around as if he owned the place (which he did) and this gave no end of consternation from the established status quo religious leadership.
Jesus made significant inroads into people’s lives, especially with outsiders like himself, and this created anger and jealousy with many of the religious ruling class. Since Jesus was not a card-carrying member, the leaders wanted to hear from him why he kept acting confidently and deliberately on their religious turf, as if he had authority to do so.
The established authorities are depicted in today’s Gospel lesson as a craven bunch who did not want to alienate the crowds yet were eager to get the upstart Jesus out the way. This appears to be an age-old situation of leaders putting their fingers to the wind to go with whatever will keep them popular and in power. Since Jesus consistently refused to play such games, the authorities believed he needed to go. They, however, had no intention of risking an outright confrontation and showing their shadow motives.
Jesus clearly connected himself with John the Baptist, both coming from the same authority. John was yet another figure for whom the established leaders could not control. We ought never to underestimate that threats to status quo leadership who have no inkling of being public servants when true moral authority comes along. The lack of conformity from both John and Jesus would cost them their very lives.
Speaking truth to power while not becoming defensive is a tricky art. Yet, Jesus did it. Continual challenges to his authority left him unfazed as to his mission and purpose on this earth. Christ was assertive without becoming despotic; forward without taking the bait of useless arguments; confident with no hint of arrogance.
For me, the contrast between Jesus and the religious authorities is trenchant. The confident, wise, and calm authority of Christ is in direct opposition to the fear, anxiety, and worry of the ruling leaders. Whereas they kept anxiously ruminating about what to do about this threat to their established authority, Jesus exhibited a non-anxious presence which maintained a steadfast focus on God’s righteous, holy, and benevolent rule and reign.
Sometimes, continual fear is a clue that one is so worried about losing the person, place, or position they possess that the divine gets pushed aside.
Questioning Christ’s credentials was the giveaway that the existing religious authorities were concerned about their power and privilege, and not the people. The wise person will see such queries for what they are.
Wherever we observe those who refuse to share power, have a xenophobic bent toward outsiders, and will seem to do just about anything to maintain the status quo, there we will find the abuse of authority. Conversely, where we observe a deep concern for equity, justice, and the common good of all persons, there we see compassionate leadership who will champion ethical leadership and espouse moral authority.
In any democratic society, we must choose our leaders wisely.
Great God of hope, in these times of change and uncertainty, unite your people and guide our leaders with your wisdom. Give us courage to overcome our fears and help us to build a future in which all may prosper and share together through Jesus Christ our Lord in the strength of your Holy Spirit. Amen.