Have you ever been in an argument with someone, and you were so emotionally jarred by it that you just couldn’t come up with a response to something they said? How many times have you, the day after a conversation like that, thought of the best come back ever? I know for me that’s happened a few times, as I replay conversations in my head over and over again. If I had just said that, it would have put that person in their place and I would’ve won the argument.
In the time of Jesus, being able to outwit someone of status in an argument or debate was a way of gaining honor. The society thrived on this system of honor and challenge, and the encounter we hear about today in the Gospel is a great example of that. This isn’t just a normal attempt to discredit Jesus though, there is a whole lot more to this story than who can ask or answer the right questions. In a way, Jesus actually does answer their question…it just isn’t entirely obvious when he does.
Context is everything for today’s Gospel reading. Just hearing the portion we do, it would be easy to forget what has immediately preceded it. This could be any time that Jesus is in the Temple, though he wasn’t there very much, and the chief priests and elders are mad at him for pretty much everything! But this particular set up is really interesting and I think it gives us a view of a Jesus that just isn’t putting up with the institutions crap anymore.
This incident takes place on the Monday of what we would consider now Holy Week, right after Palm Sunday. So first Jesus enters the city, riding a donkey, through the gate that was traditionally known to be where the Messiah would enter Jerusalem. People are waving branches and shouting, “Hosanna in the highest!”. Jesus goes directly to the Temple, and starting with verse 12 of Chapter 21,
“Then Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a den of robbers.” The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he cured them. But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the amazing things that he did, and heard the children crying out in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they became angry and said to him, “Do you hear what these are saying?” Jesus said to them, “Yes; have you never read, ‘Out of the mouths of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise for yourself’?” He left them, went out of the city to Bethany, and spent the night there.
After Jesus spends the night in Bethany, he walks back into Jerusalem on Monday morning. Verse 18 says: “In the morning, when Jesus returned to the city, he was hungry. And seeing a fig tree by the side of the road, he went to it and found nothing at all on it but leaves. Then he said to it, “May no fruit ever come from you again!” And the fig tree withered at once.” Are you starting to see a picture of a Jesus that’s kind of on a roll here? As Annie and I were reading and studying the Gospel this week, we started calling this Sassy Jesus, because he’s just not interested in putting up with stuff from chief priests to fig trees.
So now, you can imagine better as we come to today’s Gospel passage, why the elders and the chief priests come right up to Jesus and ask him, “By what authority are you doing these things?” In other words, after watching Jesus ride into the city with all the fanfare, seeing him turn over tables and drive out the money changers, they see this guy come back into the Temple so they march right up to him and say, “who do you think you are?”
Kathryn Blanchard writes about this moment, “Those in charge of the temple, still reeling from the outrageous spectacle of the previous day, are in no mood to coddle this countryside rabbi; but because of his motley band of followers they feel constrained to deal with him carefully. Argument seems to be their only option, and Jesus, in spite of being a temple nobody, is feeling equally argumentative.”
Jesus answers their question with a question. The rabbinic showdown of wit and rhetoric has been engaged. The question the chief priests and elders ask is in some ways a trick question. Their authority in Israel is given by God to Moses and then passed down through the ages. Warren Carter helps explain this, ““Their own authority, centered on the Temple, is clear. They are the social, economic, political, and religious elite allied with and legitimated by Rome. Their authority consists of social status and power over others and is based on birth (chief priests), training (scribes), wealth (elders), and political alliances. They want to know what Jesus’s legitimation is.”
So if Jesus answers that his authority comes from God, that is easily refutable based on biblical tradition in the eyes of the elders, even if it’s true. It might even be seen as blasphemy. There is also no human teacher or other rabbinic tradition that Jesus can name. Frankly, the real answer, that his authority comes from himself, while true just won’t be accepted by these people. Jesus knows all of this, and so he gives the only answer he can. He asks a question that has only one right answer, and puts the pressure back on the elders.
Jesus’ question back to them, regarding the authority of John the Baptist, contains multiple important layers. The first is that there’s no right answer for them to give. If they acknowledge that John the Baptist was sent by God…and there are a lot of Jewish folks at that time that see John as the most recent prophet…then they are going to have to acknowledge Jesus’ authority also from God. But if they want to say John doesn’t have authority, they know that there are a lot of people standing around that are going to be very upset.
But that’s not all. By asking this question, Jesus aligns himself with John in the sense of their ministry and place in society. John was on the margins. He was in the wilderness. He was murdered because he spoke out against an insane ruler who cared for nothing but their own grandeur and hold on power. This shows us that in a way Jesus’ authority and ministry is likewise on the margins. It does not come from the powerful rulers of the world; it is not rooted in the institutions of the temple. Jesus’ authority is for the least of these, and in the deafening silence of the chief priests and elders, he offers them a parable that says exactly that.
When we hear stories from the bible we often think about where we are in the story. Are we a bystander? Are we a disciple? But rarely do we hear a story like this and think, “are we the chief priests and elders?” And as much as we can listen to and shake our heads at how they treat Jesus and refuse to answer his question, deep down in our own hearts, I think we do actually have a lot of the same thoughts and attitudes that these temple elite exhibit.
In reflecting on this passage and its application to our lives and worshipping communities, Charlotte Cleghorn asks, “How often do older members become upset when newer and younger members begin to take on leadership responsibilities? What happens when new ideas are presented and acted upon? What happens when something in the Sunday liturgy or worship service is changed or furniture moved?” It isn’t a stretch to see ourselves reacting in the same way to changes in what we expect. It isn’t a stretch to think we would ask the same question….who does that person think they are? What authority do they have to come in here and do that?
As the chief priests and elders stand there in silence, perhaps uncomfortably so because they can’t answer his question, Jesus continues with the rabbinical debate rhetoric. He asks them then, “what do you think?” and then offers a parable of two sons, one who says he won’t do what his father has told him to but then does, and a second son who says he will do what his father has told him to, but then doesn’t. There couldn’t be a more clear analogy here. Those that have repented of their sin and disobedience to God are the ones who are more favored.
Those who have lead lives of sin but then heard the words of John the Baptist and amended their lives are placed above these chief priests and elders, who at least in word, pay homage to God and yet do not live out his commands. These temple authorities, though they profess obedience to God, have failed to act in accordance with God’s word. That is the final thing we need to take from this passage today. An uncomfortable mirror to hold up to our own lives. Are we those that profess our faith loudly with words, but fail to exhibit it at all with our lives and our actions?
This isn’t about pointing fingers at others, this is about self reflection. Stanley Hauerwas, an American theologian says, “Rather than presuming that these parables provide grounds for determining ‘who is in and who is out’, we should rather attend to how these parables work to help those who are ‘out’ identify themselves.” This is for the chief priests and elders to reflect on their own hearts, not for the disciples to stand there and point fingers at them. So too for us, we must reflect on our words and our actions and consider whether we are doing God’s will or whether we are offering empty promises that are nothing but hollow words.
The encounter of Jesus in the temple is another moment in his ministry where he teaches that the values of God’s kingdom are not the values of sinful broken world. The least and last, the repentant sinners, the marginalized, have more blessing heaped upon their heads than the finely dressed authorities who parade around their temples with empty hearts and faithless lives. Once again Jesus offers us something to consider in our own discipleship. How are we following him, or maybe even why are we following him. Do we find that our lives are like the second son, the one who promises to do what their Father asks, and then doesn’t? Or can we be more like the first, regardless of what our answer is at the beginning, in the end we do the will of our Father who calls us to a life of values alien to a world that embraces sin and suffering more and more all the time?