“….when he returned to the city…Jesus entered the Temple precincts and began teaching. The chief priests and the elders of the people came to him and said, ‘By what authority are you doing what you do? Who gave you this authority?’ And I,” replied Jesus, ‘Will ask you a single questions; if you give me the answer, I will tell you my authority for these actions. What was the origin of John’s right to baptize? Was it divine or was it human?” They discussed it among themselves and said, ‘If we say, ‘divine,’ he will respond, ‘Then why did you refuse to believe him?” But if we say ‘human’ we have the people to fear, for they regard John as a prophet,’ So they replied to Jesus, “We don’t know.” (Matthew 23:23-27)
Divine or human? We don’t know? Really? Of course we know? Divine or Human? You bet we know! We’re just afraid to say. These few verses are usually ignored during the lead up to the big events of Holy Week. It seems to me, that they may well provide those of us who live in the 21st century about as much angst as they provided to people of the first century, but for entirely different reasons. I think perhaps, the writer of the gospel according to Matthew, whoever he was, may have been messing with his first century audience. “Human or divine?” was just as much of a loaded question in the first century as it is in the 21st century but for entirely different reasons. The writer of the Gospel According to Matthew may have placed the question in the mouth of Jesus, but today, just as I’m sure it did all those centuries ago, the question echoes back and forth between Jesus and the listeners to the narrative until it is not so much about John the Baptist’s authority to baptize as it is about Jesus himself. Which is exactly what the author designed the interchange to do in the hearts and minds of his listeners. “By what authority are you doing what you do? Who gave you this authority?”
In good rabbinic style the author of this text has Jesus reply to a question with a question. “I will ask you a single question; if you give me the answer, I will tell you my authority for these actions.” Do you want to know why I came riding in here on an ass? Do you want to know what gives me the right to mock your notions of Messiah? Do you want to know by whose authority I rube the Roman’s noses in it, parading into town mocking their leadership with a farce designed to make you laugh at the way they dare to laud their power over us? Do you want to know what or who gives me the right to march into the Temple at Passover and turn the place upside down, attacking the financial system that lies at the heart of our peoples’ collaboration with Roman oppression? Do you really want to know by whose authority I challenge the injustice that surrounds us? Do you really want to know? Well I’ll tell you if you answer me this? “What was the origin of John’s right to baptize? Come on you tell me. Was it divine or was it human?” They lopped of John’s head for daring to challenge injustice. Served it up on a silver platter for the crime of challenging Roman authority. Do you really want to challenge my authority? Human or divine? Come on tell me, I dare you.
They discussed it among themselves and they knew they were trapped. “If we say, ‘divine,” he will respond, ‘Then why did you refuse to believe him?” But if we say, ‘human” we have the people to fear, for they regard him as a prophet.” So they replied to Jesus, “We don’t know?”
Human or divine? We don’t know. Of course they knew! They know and we know. We are just afraid to say. Because if we say, we know full well what the next question will be and we don’t want to go there. Human or divine may not be a 21st century question. It is a question that has different implications in our day than it did back when the writer of the Gospel According to Matthew put it into the mouth of Jesus. To question someone’s authority in the first century meant pretty much what it does today. We, like our first century ancestors in the faith, want to know if Jesus has the right stuff to challenge the system. If Jesus has the right stuff; then maybe just maybe he’s worth paying attention to. Show us your credentials Jesus. We want to know who you are before we take any advice from you; especially advice that will have us taking a stand against the powers that be. Continue reading