Then they came again to Jerusalem. And as He was walking in the temple, the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders came to Him. And they said to Him, "By what authority are You doing these things? And who gave You this authority to do these things?" But Jesus answered and said to them, "I also will ask you one question; then answer Me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things: The baptism of John -- was it from heaven or from men? Answer Me." 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'" -- they feared the people, for all counted John to have been a prophet indeed. So they answered and said to Jesus, "We do not know." And Jesus answered and said to them, "Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things."
- Mark 11:27-33
Yesterday, we read that when Jesus and the disciples had come out from Bethany, He was hungry. And seeing from afar the fig tree having leaves, He went to see if perhaps He would find something on it. When He came to it, He found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. In response Jesus said to it, "Let no one eat fruit from you ever again." And His disciples heard it. So they came to Jerusalem. Then Jesus went into the temple and began to drive out those who bought and sold in the temple, and overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. And He would not allow anyone to carry wares through the temple. Then He taught, saying to them, "Is it not written, 'My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations'? But you have made it a 'den of thieves.'" And the scribes and chief priests heard it and sought how they might destroy Him; for they feared Him, because all the people were astonished at His teaching. When evening had come, He went out of the city. Now in the morning, as they passed by, they saw the fig tree dried up from the roots. And Peter, remembering, said to Him, "Rabbi, look! The fig tree which You cursed has withered away." So Jesus answered and said to them, "Have faith in God. For assuredly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, 'Be removed and be cast into the sea,' and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that those things he says will be done, he will have whatever he says. Therefore I say to you, whatever things you ask when you pray, believe that you will receive them, and you will have them. And whenever you stand praying, if you have anything against anyone, forgive him, that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses."
Then they came again to Jerusalem. And as He was walking in the temple, the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders came to Him. My study bible tells us that in the opinion of the official leaders of Israel, Jesus has trespassed on their territory. If He is allowed to remain they are totally discredited. It says, "The stage is set after the cleansing of the temple; they must destroy Him."
And they said to Him, "By what authority are You doing these things? And who gave You this authority to do these things?" But Jesus answered and said to them, "I also will ask you one question; then answer Me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things: The baptism of John -- was it from heaven or from men? Answer Me." 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'" -- they feared the people, for all counted John to have been a prophet indeed. So they answered and said to Jesus, "We do not know." And Jesus answered and said to them, "Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things." A note tells us, "Answering the angry oppositions questions is often not wise. Their question By what authority are You doing these things? is logical, for Jesus' acts are messianic. And there is an answer: the authority is that of Himself and His Father. But, knowing they seek to entrap Him, He will not say so. He leaves them with their question unanswered, and in confusion over His question. Those who claim to have the answers are left admitting their ignorance."
Jesus sets an example of integrity here. He's loyal to His mission and His purpose. Often, I'm afraid that Christ is portrayed as someone without a lot of vigor. But if we look at today's reading, we see His courage and strength. It is a picture of authority and confidence. He won't directly answer their question, on their terms. He's a smart opponent. He will match wits with them anytime. But it is always to His purpose, and He never wastes a moment with useless talk -- this confrontation and purpose is essential to His ministry. He is focused and He always does what it takes to express His truth. In this case, He is still teaching by showing that these leaders are not simply cowardly, but that they don't have any real justice to stand on here. There's also the contrast between Jesus and the leadership. They present a seemingly united front, they have "worldly" authority in some sense, they are the nominal officials of the Temple. And yet, He as one Man will stand up and assert Himself so that they are befuddled. They are juggling too many agendas which have little to do, really, with a true love of God. The notion of "authority" comes through here in Jesus' example - even as a single person without any worldly authority or position to fall back on - as someone who sticks to the truth, to His purpose, to His mission. He does not even defend His own authority; He simply gets to the heart of the truth here. What did they think of John, another one who told the truth? He also issues a command to them: "Answer Me." In Jesus' example, we have this splendid combination of truth, courage, authority, and humility -- even in His combative spirit. In other examples of confrontation, we have seen Jesus straight and to the point -- and yet protective of His disciples -- when Pharisees and scribes were debating with the disciples (see here and here). The power and authority in Jesus is combined with humility: He speaks the truth, without a resort to His own position or popularity. Rather, He is unafraid of this confrontation with the authorities in the Temple. He knows it must happen. His act of cleansing the Temple made that a certainty. He speaks with authority and power that is of the truth, and at the same time, He's not afraid of showing up His opponents, exposing their weakness and hypocrisy -- for that is also part of the truth here. Let us remember this blazing example of the type of confidence that Jesus has. His confidence is in the truth, with humility, and intelligence, and the purpose of His mission. We could do no better than to aspire to be like this picture of strength and integrity, and to remember the one mission we really have that strips every other agenda away.