“….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.
So, come on tell us, who are you? Who do you represent? Who has your back? This is a question that resonates with us as it resonated with the author’s first audience. But not the question, “Human or divine?” To inquire about one’s authority in the same conversation as one’s authority in the first century was a loaded question. Everybody knew who their oppressors where. There was no hiding behind major corporations, multi-conglomerates, puppet regimes or nameless aristocrats. The Roman standards were plastered all over Jerusalem; all over the Empire. Veni, Vedi, Vici! Everywhere the Romans marched They came, they saw and they conquered. Woe betides anyone who stood in their way. And once they came, they saw and they conquered, they taxed. Pay onto Caesar what is Caesar’s; even an itinerant rebel preacher like Jesus knew that! Shut up and pay your taxes or face the full wrath of Caesar’s might. Keep your mouths shut and do what the Romans tell you to do or find yourself tossed into jail, or nailed to a tree, it makes little difference to the Romans who you are. Why they’d just as soon execute you as let your complaining lead to revolution. Everyone knows better than to trifle with Rome. Rome has the gods on their side. In fact Caesar is a god!!! So bow down and worship Caesar who is Lord of All, Son of God and Saviour of the World, whose Pax Romana is the peace that comes from victory. No one stands a chance against a god such as Caesar! Hail Caesar! Everyone knows that Caesar is divine! Caesar’s authority is absolute! Human or divine indeed!!! Bow down. Be quiet. Behave! Or end up just like John; don’t lose your head!
The writer of the gospel according to Matthew knew exactly how his oppressed audience would hear this question. If we say ‘divine’ then they’ll ask why we refused him. Why didn’t we follow him? Why didn’t we stand against our oppressors? If we say ‘human’ we have the people to fear, for they regard him as a prophet; a hero. So, let’s not commit. Let’s take the path of least resistance. Let’s just say we don’t know. Even though we know full well.
The question, ‘human or divine” echoes down through the centuries and we too are tempted to insist that we don’t know; because we too are afraid to answer. But for all the wrong reasons. We assume that human or divine is the choice between flesh and blood and divinity, between natural and super-natural. But that’s our problem, not the writer of the Gospel according to Matthew’s problem, not John the Baptist’s problem, not Jesus’ problem and certainly not the problem of the people of the first century.
Human or divine is a question designed to get to the heart of the matter of authority. Do you have the right stuff to go up against the oppressors? The Romans insist that they are gods, sons of gods, saviours of the world, do you have what it takes to go up against their power and might? Tell us exactly how do you intend to defeat oppression? A first century audience would have known full well what it would mean to answer yes to that question. “Yes you have the right stuff,” would mean that they would have to follow Jesus and risk loosing everything. To say, “No” to Jesus would mean admitting that the only thing they were willing to do was collaborate with their oppressors.
Today, the answer to Jesus’ question might not get us killed, but it might just expose our own collaboration or worse yet our own identification as oppressors. If Jesus has the right stuff, if Jesus’ teaching about non-violent resistance, about love, about inclusion, or about courage is correct then we will have to explain why we are not following him. If Jesus is correct we will have to make earth-shattering, life-changing decisions that could put an end to our way of life. If we say, that Jesus is wrong, we will have even more frightening things to deal with because might really does make right, and we’d better arm ourselves to the teeth and start shoring up our wealth because the angry mobs will be coming for those of us who are hording more of the world’s wealth than we really need, our roles as the oppressors will demand a ruthless approach that has no time for sympathy. So, we do well to preoccupy ourselves with unimportant questions about the doctrine and dogmas that Jesus life and death have inspired. Better to argue over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, or whether or not Jesus actually physically rose from the dead, or better yet what happens when you die. If we keep talking about heaven and hell long enough we won’t have to answer the question of authority. We won’t have to decide whether or not to actually follow Jesus in a parade designed to expose oppression for what it is. As long as we continue to maintain that we don’t know the answer, we can justify holding on to our wealth while others suffer. As long as we refuse to address the question with honesty and integrity we can avoid having to change our lives, give up what we really care about, and open ourselves to the risk of loving. So, we wave our palm branches and shout our Hosannas, hoping against hope that no one will notice that we don’t really want to follow Jesus because where Jesus is leading us could get us all killed. Where Jesus is leading us we cannot take along our weapons, or shore up our wealth, or refuse anyone entry, or fail to love as we have been loved.
We don’t know. Of course we know. It’s not about natural or super-natural, human or divine, physical resurrection or empty tomb. It’s about being human; human in the way that Jesus lived and died for. So, if we are prepared to follow Jesus and work to ensure that humanity evolves in ways that ensure peace through justice there’s a parade waiting for us to join; a parade designed to save us from ourselves, our fears, our oppressive inclinations, our greed, our avarice, our pride, our prejudices and our hatred, a parade full of rebels whose authority comes from that which lies at the very heart of reality, a parade whose authority is love; love that sets free both the oppressor and the oppressed, so that justice can give birth to peace.
Human or divine? So, do we have the courage to answer: human and therefore divine? If Jesus is human therefore divine, then there are parades out there that we need to be joining for we too are human and therefore divine. Our world needs us to step out into the streets and march against oppression. Our planet needs us to step out into the streets and march against the destruction and abuse of the earth. Our sisters and brothers need us to step out into the streets and finally address the issues of poverty so that no one goes hungry or homeless while we enjoy the blessings of wealth and power. It’s time for us to take our authority seriously and step up and step out and live into our humanity so that our divinity can be a blessing to all of creation.
“We don’t know.” Please!!! Of course we know! Jesus was human and therefore divine and so are we. Let’s use our authority to usher in peace through justice so that our sisters and brothers everywhere can live fully, love freely and be all that we were created to be.
This is quite powerful and inspirational. As part of a lay-led congregation in my hometown in Mississippi, I would like to use these words to inspire social justice and action in our congregation. May I adapt your words for our Palm Sunday service?
Sorry I missed your comment. Busy days. Feel free to use where it helps.
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