Saturday, June 13, 2009

Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things

One day, as he was teaching the people in the temple and telling the good news, the chief priests and the scribes came with the elders and said to him, ‘Tell us, by what authority are you doing these things? Who is it who gave you this authority?’ He answered them, ‘I will also ask you a question, and you tell me: Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?’ They discussed it with one another, saying, ‘If we say, “From heaven”, he will say, “Why did you not believe him?” But if we say, “Of human origin”, all the people will stone us; for they are convinced that John was a prophet.’ So they answered that they did not know where it came from. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.’

- Luke 20:1-8

We've already covered this particular story when it appeared in Mark's gospel, and I continue to feel the same way about this feisty Jesus. As we've walked already through Luke to this point, we see what confrontation is like for Jesus. Up until this point, we have focused through Luke's gospel on many teachings, parables, healings, and especially instructions to the disciples and followers. But here in Jerusalem - as Luke presents it - is the beginning of direct confrontation. We've already been told that the religious authority in Jerusalem is looking for an opportunity to kill Jesus. And Jesus - three times by now in Luke's gospel - has also warned his disciples of what is going to happen to him in Jerusalem. So, the stage is set. Jesus knows what these men want, and he knows what will happen himself.

I read in commentary that "these things" (in the question about his authority to do "these things") refer to Jesus' cleansing of the temple (driving out the sellers), and preaching the gospel with messianic claims. It seems rather like a reasonable question in some sense. On the other hand, we already know their motives and so does Jesus. And yet further, we have seen over and over again that this recognition of authority is not about proofs. It is a kind of recognition that happens in the heart; something that takes place in an internal space like the recognition of a loved one, the grasping of an important root of something true inside of us. This is a kingdom that does not come with observation. And over and over again, it is our internal, visceral response to the presence of that kingdom that determines where we stand, where our faith is, what we internally embrace.

But confrontation is the mode and purpose of the questioning here. I love that Jesus accepts confrontation in his own way. He is not afraid of defending himself in his own way, for the right purpose and at the right time. So instead of a direct answer, Jesus turns the tables on his would-be accusers. I think there is an important notion here about preaching. He's not bothering to preach to these people. He's not laying himself open to their challenges, either. He responds in a way to defend himself, and with the knowledge of what these people want - and of their lack of sincerity in the question. He doesn't bother to preach or to teach to those who reject him outright. I find that significant, and it will come up again. Instead he turns the tables on them, asking them a question he knows they cannot answer in front of the crowds, about the authority of John the Baptist.

And the final answer to the query: ‘Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.’ These questioners deserve no more trust and openness than they themselves are giving. They receive instead a defense, and a good one. Jesus is under no imposition to explain or to answer the questions of these people. I think we must understand the difference between teaching, preaching and healing and opening up ourselves to those of whom we must be wary. There are warnings in these gospels to his disciples that he's sending them out as sheep in the midst of wolves, that they must be wise as serpents and harmless as doves, that the servants will be treated no better than the master, and that they must not cast their pearls before swine. We must understand the difference between mercy and masochism. While we can't judge nor predict how others will respond, Jesus teaches us, I believe, that there are circumstances where we must simply let go; and perhaps a defense is the only proper response. It is not to everyone that this kingdom can be extended. It cannot be extended to those who reject it. This is a question of the heart: of recognition and loyalty and allegiance. Most often, perhaps, we will find that worldly authority - prized above all things - acts as a great barrier to entry. This would be in keeping with the teachings in the story of the rich ruler. We know that all things are possible with God - but ultimately God requires our cooperation. We have free will that must be respected, and wisely acknowledged.

I think we can read into Jesus' defense here the idea of discernment as a part of the quality of just judgment. Mercy is always extended, but it can only be received by those who want it or indeed think they are in need of it. It is also always consistent with truth - Jesus is not to bend mercy to the point that he embraces a lie about himself, a denial of his authority. He's not even bending an important understanding of faith in order to save his life: he will not offer proofs. He is not trying to defend himself by convincing these opponents of his own identity. These are all important notions to ponder in the extension of a discussion about good judgment and discernment. Our Lord does not go to the cross in order to suffer needlessly, but to defeat an enemy in the only way possible. When we are asked to practice mercy and kindness, we are not asked to throw our good gifts upon those who'd trample them and who have no capacity for gratitude - for accepting mercy as a gift. If we are wounded when we serve this quality of mercy and love, it is so that we heal through righteous judgment. Our humility is before God, and the truth and discernment, just judgment, that comes of God - not before those who would exploit us or trample on the gifts we offer. I think this is an important component of our consciousness as Christians. If we believe mercy to be a gift we must also respect the gift that we offer ourselves, and discern what we offer. Sometimes, a defense and silence is appropriate.

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