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 the day after Jesus' Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem (commemorated as Palm Sunday), when they had come out from Bethany, He was hungry. And seeing from afar a 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 the 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 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. But if you do not forgive, neither will your Father in heaven forgive 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. And they said to Him, "By what authority are You doing these things? And who gave You this authority to do these things?" The religious leadership questions Jesus after His cleansing of the temple. Who gave Him authority to do such a thing? How can He prove this authority? Jesus has been welcomed into Jerusalem (the Triumphal Entry) by those heralding Him as Messiah. His first act was to cleanse the temple. This challenge is like so many others; they want Him to prove He is Christ, the Messiah (see for example Mark 8:11-15).
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." Jesus has consistently refused all demands that He "prove" His authority and identity. This time, He responds to their question with a question of His own, turning the tables on those who quiz Him. He never takes up the temptation for "proof" from those without faith, who ask out of malicious motive.
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." Both the question to Jesus and Jesus' question back to the elders require the same answer. John the Baptist was widely understood by all the people to be a holy man; if his authority was of heaven, then so much Jesus' authority be so. In this answer of Jesus, we see exposed the cowardice of the leadership on two accounts: they fear the people, and they cannot answer honestly. My study bible tells us that Jesus' refusal to answer directly teaches us not to answer those who ask about holy things with malicious intent.
We can understand the anger and even frustration of the authorities in the temple (the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders). Jesus has been welcomed into Jerusalem by those who greet Him as Messiah, but where is their authority? They have not recognized Him as such. He has come into Jerusalem, and after being welcomed into the city by those who believe He is the Christ, His first act is the cleansing of the temple -- throwing out the money changers and traders in animals for sacrifices (yesterday's reading). It is an open and direct confrontation of the practices going on inside the temple. Repeatedly Jesus has been asked for proofs -- a sign from heaven -- as a challenge from the religious authorities. Here is yet another one. But Jesus refuses any and all challenges for "proofs." His response to the leadership turns their own question on its head, as it is they who must answer His question about the baptism of John the Baptist, whom they don't dare criticize. We know what these men will eventually plan against Him, but for now He has won the day, so to speak, at least here openly in the temple before the people, whom the leadership fear. Jesus will say to them at His arrest, "Have you come out, as against a robber, with swords and clubs to take Me? I was daily with you in the temple teaching, and you did not seize Me" (see Mark 14:48-49). The issue of the anger of these men teaches us a great deal about the use of power, and about position, and how we either use what we have carefully or we do not. But the really important question here truly is about authority. What gives the temple its authority? From where does the authority of offices of temple leadership come? We could ask with Jesus, is it from heaven or from men? Clearly the authority of the temple itself, and of all the offices and ranks of those who serve in the temple, comes from heaven, or at least is meant to. Without that authority, what is there? In their failure to discern the reality of the presence of God, the holiness that is clearly in Jesus' works and ministry, they fail also to uphold the power by which their own authority has rank or is given. They've forgotten their own purpose, neglected their duties. Jesus cleansed the temple (in yesterday's reading), saying that it was meant to be a house of prayer for all nations, and they had made it a den of thieves. Here we see the hollowness of rank without the authority which comes from truly honoring God, as all they are concerned with is to plot against the Man who seems to be denying them their places. What it does is give us a picture of a lack of self-awareness and what that does to us. These men project their own vainglory and envy onto Christ, whom they seem to assume is simply trying to take their places. This is what they fear. They have no insight into their anger and envy, no self-examination that would give them the self-knowledge to try to understand honestly whether Christ's power is indeed from heaven or from men. They don't understand Him. This becomes the crux of the matter that they ignore; their own hard-hearted incapacity for self-knowledge makes them blind. Their outrage means they can't see straight. Their unwillingness or inability to serve God first becomes a stumbling block to insight. It would mean giving up too much of what it is they prefer before all else, and this turns them into the kind of hypocrites Jesus will rail against in His sermons (see Matthew 23). They are the blind guides who fail truly to honor that which sanctifies the temple and the altar which they serve. The great teacher Gamaliel will have wiser words of guidance when he counsels the Sanhedrin to let Jesus' early followers and their plan or work alone, for "if it is of God, you cannot overthrow it—lest you even be found to fight against God" (Acts 5:28-29). A lack of real humility leads us to this type of blindness, in which we act as judge and authority without the love of God coming as first priority in our hearts, and so we cannot help but project our own flaws onto others. This is the crux of the need for humility, particularly in any one of us who wishes to have authority. We run the danger of preferring the "praise of men" to the praise of God. It is a warning to all of us, for it's perhaps our greatest temptation. We never know where God is calling us; it's our job to be always aware. One needs humility for discernment. The blindness here is a common problem for each one of us, perhaps our greatest vulnerability.