When people do not like what someone is saying or doing, they rarely actually change the words or the deeds themselves. It is easier, and often more effective, to instead challenge the right that the person has to do those things. If you can caricature that person as usurping what is not rightly theirs, or as claiming an authority to which they do not have a true claim, then your work is done—people will not only ignore what they are currently saying, but also ignore what they have to say thereafter. This issue of “who is in the right” and from where comes the “authority” is a common human technique to give precedence.
Here, the religious leaders employ this tactic against Jesus. He was saying and doing things with which they did not agree. But rather than examine whether what Jesus was saying and doing was right, they instead challenged whether he had the right to do it at all. So they asked him about his authority—where he got such authority or who gave it to him.
This was a trap. If Jesus gave the true answer (that he was the Son of God and therefore had the authority) he would have been stoned or killed as blasphemer, right there and then. And yet it was not yet Jesus’ time to die. And so Jesus finds a way to turn the table on his inquisitors.
Note: it is not wrong to be canny in our interactions with sinful human opposition. Jesus urged his followers to be as innocent as a dove yet as canny as a snake. That balance—purity and innocence yet also savvy wisdom—is hard to strike. Jesus does it here masterfully.
He asks them a question, itself often a good principle. Jesus does not accept the terms of the question that been posed to him. Instead he asks a question in return. This question is about John’s baptism and his authority. If his opponents say that his authority came from God, then the natural follow up question would be why they did not believe him. But if instead they say that his authority was just from people, then those who followed John would stone them because they held him to have been a prophet. Note their dissimulation. Instead of trying to find the truth, they are trying to find a way out.
They answer then (untruthfully) that they do not know where John’s authority came from. This was to avoid them being put into a compromising situation and exposing their spiritual hypocrisy. Therefore, Jesus replies that he will neither answer their question. Note: it is not always wrong to refuse to answer a question, if the question comes with malicious intent.
Let us then ensure that we come to Christ this morning with open hearts, ready to hear from him. Let us genuinely seek the truth, not try to avoid finding the truth with clever ruses. Let us be those who follow Jesus with openness of heart and willingness of mind. Let us also seek Christ’s wisdom to know how to reply when asked what might seem like an impossible question about our faith in Christ.
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