Now it happened on one of those days, as He taught the people in the temple and preached the gospel, that the chief priests and the scribes, together with the elders, confronted Him and spoke to Him, saying, "Tell us, by what authority are You doing these things? Or who is he who gave You this authority?" But He answered and said to them, "I also will ask you one thing, and answer Me. The baptism of John--was it from heaven or from men?" And they reasoned among themselves, saying, "If we say, 'From heaven,' He will say, 'Why then did you not believe him?' But if we say, 'From men,' all the people will stone us, for they are persuaded that John was a prophet." So they answered that they did not know where it was from. And Jesus said to them, "Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things."
- Luke 20:1-8
In the previous reading on Saturday, we read that Jesus drew near to Jerusalem as He was making His descent from the Mount of Olives in His Triumphal Entry into the city. Now as He drew near, He saw the city and wept over it, saying, "If you had known, even you, especially in this your day, the things that make for your peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. For days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment around you, surround you and close you in on every side, and level you, and your children within you, to the ground, and they will not leave in you one stone upon another, because you did not know the time of your visitation." Then He went into the temple and began to drive out those who bought and sold in it, saying to them, "It is written, 'My house is a house of prayer,' but you have made it a 'den of thieves.'" And He was teaching daily in the temple. But the chief priests, the scribes, and the leaders of the people sought to destroy Him, and were unable to do anything; for all the people were very attentive to hear Him.
Now it happened on one of those days, as He taught the people in the temple and preached the gospel . . . We see how Jesus spends His days, at this beginning of what we know as Passion Week, after His Triumphal Entry in which the crowds welcomed Him as Messiah. He begins by cleansing the temple (see yesterday's reading), and is openly daily teaching in it and preaching the gospel. All are free to come to Him, to listen, to ask, to dispute.
. . . that the chief priests and the scribes, together with the elders, confronted Him and spoke to Him, saying, "Tell us, by what authority are You doing these things? Or who is he who gave You this authority?" My study bible says that "Jesus is questioned about His authority. These things include the cleansing of the temple and His preaching of the gospel with messianic claims." It's a perfectly reasonable question on some level: Jesus' cleansing of the temple was a Messianic act. But of course, we see things in the Gospel from a particular perspective; we already know things the narrative will reveal about the questioners and their motives. In some sense, this is poetically appropriate, as Jesus knows them already as well.
But He answered and said to them, "I also will ask you one thing, and answer Me. The baptism of John--was it from heaven or from men?" In Jesus' dialogues with people, He often responds ultimately depending upon what He already knows about their hearts. Here He answers a question with a question. And we must keep in mind that this is a public dispute, as the text tells us. The crowds are watching and listening, and the ones who question Jesus know that full well also. It's a sort of scene of mirrors upon mirrors: what is in their hearts is mirrored to Jesus who knows already, and yet they are all facing the mirror of the crowds, which Jesus will use as well -- including the leadership's fear of what the crowd thinks. Jesus Himself is fearless. As we begin Passion Week, we observe His action, answering a question with a question. All is in His control, including what will happen in the week to come, despite any appearance to the contrary. In this clever question, He is making it impossible for them to answer on their terms.
And they reasoned among themselves, saying, "If we say, 'From heaven,' He will say, 'Why then did you not believe him?' But if we say, 'From men,' all the people will stone us, for they are persuaded that John was a prophet." So they answered that they did not know where it was from. And Jesus said to them, "Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things." Who is worthy of the revelation of the true answer? They are not really willing to listen, nor are they honest in their questioning and their aims. Jesus has just openly entered the City, welcomed as Messiah. And yet He will not reveal this "obvious" answer to the leadership. He is in complete control.
It's hard to think of Christ refusing an answer to anyone. It's hard to think of Jesus refusing anything to anyone! But our perspective comes as believers and faithful. We are those who pray to Christ, who put our problems before Him, and seek His answers. We have been told (in chapter 11 of Luke's gospel), "I say to you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you." So, here, we wonder: why does Jesus not answer them directly? But in some sense, He is answering them directly. He's telling them the answer, although where they are, in their way of thinking, no clear answer can come forth because it's not really their concern. The plain answer is that John's authority and Jesus' authority come from the same place, from the Father. But Jesus is Son as Only-begotten. In this is the truth. But the leadership doesn't ask truly for truth; they don't really want the full answer. They seek to put Jesus to death, to get rid of Him as their problem and threat to their authority and their places, their love of the "the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces" Jesus answers the truth in their hearts, and He will not refrain from exposing what that is. His judgment is true, His aim is true. The crowd plays a rather incidental part here, we must note. The crowd has an effect on the leadership which Jesus uses to further illuminate their motives. But ultimately, it is the true judgment that matters, not the opinions of the crowds. Ultimately, we are one of that crowd. We also might be in the position of the leadership, when we have something that needs to change which we don't really want to see (that plank in our own eye, about which He's taught us). So, we watch Jesus, who is clearly the Center of this drama. He is being judged, and yet He remains Judge. In all things, no matter what we see and observe according to worldly perspective, we must keep in mind the message of the Gospel, that He remains King, He is in charge, He will surrender nothing of His life except by virtue of the power of the Lord and the authority given to Him. When we live our lives, it is important to consider to whom our own loyalty lies, who gives true authority, and whose will we seek. We may face bullies and false charges, we may find ourselves on the side of the bullies or those misusing authority. We may deal with people whose motives are false. But there is one answer, truly, to every question. Let us look the answer, and His true Judgment, justly in plain sight here in the Gospels. Let us seek His answer, and follow His way. There is only one real authority, from whom all things come -- as well as true judgment.