There are certain questions that are answered simply in their asking. If you have to ask how much it costs to operate an airplane per hour, the answer is: you shouldn’t buy one. If you have to ask whether a tithe should come before or after taxes, the answer is: you haven’t come to grasp the power of sacrificial giving in your spiritual life. If you have to ask Jesus where his authority comes from, the answer is: you just don’t get what Jesus came to do. It is in this last category that we find the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders on Tuesday in Holy Week.
They are probably still sweeping up turtle dove feathers and finding coins in the cobblestone cracks when Jesus returned to the scene of yesterday’s dust up. It had been maybe twelve hours since Jesus turned the tables in the Temple, running the money changers out of the Temple Court with a homemade whip. There is no doubt that the whole town was still talking about what Jesus said to the Temple leaders, how he accused them of making the Temple “a den of robbers.” They were humiliated by Jesus yesterday, and he had the gall to show up again this morning? This sort of bold-faced threat to their authority could not be left unchallenged, and so a representative group of the Sanhedrin, the 71 member Jewish Council, was dispatched to question Jesus in what would prove to be the opening salvo in his sham of a trial.
“What gives you the right to do what you did yesterday? Who gave you such authority?” By asking Jesus this question, the group shows that they very much do not care about his answer: either way, they’ve got him. If he answers truthfully and says that his authority comes from the Lord God, then they can arrest him on the charge of blasphemy. God would never give someone the authority to cause such an uproar in his holy Temple. God wouldn’t hang out with sinners and tax collectors, like Jesus did. God was cleaner than that, purer than that, holier than that. Better than claiming his authority came from God would be if Jesus chose to demur. He’d have no choice but to admit that his authority came only from within himself. That sort of arrogance coupled with the unsettling things that Jesus had done and the ragtag group of followers he had amassed could easily be converted into an arrest on the charge of insurrection. No matter what answer Jesus gave, the chief priests, scribes, and elders knew that they had him dead to rights, but then again, so Jesus knew that too. The answer they sought was already found in the question they had asked.
But, it was only Tuesday. The Passover Festival was still a few days away. Herod was only now settling into his palace, while nearby Pilate was preparing himself for his least favorite week of the year. It wasn’t yet time for Jesus. The preparations weren’t complete. The final meal hadn’t been shared. Knowing that whatever answer he gave wouldn’t really matter, Jesus turned the question on its head, insisting that these Temple authorities exercise some actual authority by answering an unanswerable authority question of their own. “Was the Baptism of John human or divine?”
you just heard the story, so you know that, in the end, the Temple authorities choose to exercise no authority what so ever. They declined to answer Jesus’ question. Not only that, but even once they realized that Jesus had embarrassed them by way of a particularly damning parable, they refused to arrest him, for fear of the crowd. In a scene that was supposed to be all about challenging Jesus’ authority, it is the Temple leaders who end up looking like fools. They showed their ignorance by simply asking the question, but Jesus gives them the opportunity to repent – to fall in line under the authority of God – but instead they chose the safety of their highly respected careers.
This Tuesday in Holy Week, we each have the same opportunity to recognize the authority of God, to acquiesce to the authority given to his Son, and to invite the Holy Spirit to have authority over our lives. This choice won’t come through the asking of difficult questions. It doesn’t require mental acrobatics to rationalize it all. Leave systematic theology to the ivory towers of academia and instead, ask God to be the author of your life. The life of faith is about entering a relationship of trust, the sort of relationship that the Temple authorities couldn’t muster: following Jesus all the way through the cross and inheriting everlasting life by yielding to the authority of God. Amen.