December 11, 2012
Dear brothers and sisters,
It was great to see so many CRHPers last night, but Mass and Fr. John’s homily was the highlight for me. I am taking the good news this morning from Matthew 21:23-27.
When he had come into the temple area, the chief priests and the elders of the people approached him as he was teaching and said, “By what authority are you doing these things? And who gave you this authority?” Jesus said to them in reply, “I shall ask you one question, and if you answer it for me, then I shall tell you by what authority I do these things. Where was John’s baptism from? Was it of heavenly or of human origin?” They discussed this among themselves and said, “If we say ‘Of heavenly origin,’ he will say to us, “Then why did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we fear the crowd, for they all regard John as a prophet.” So they said to Jesus in reply, “We do not know.” He himself said to them, “Neither shall I tell you by what authority I do these things.”
Israel in the time of Jesus was an uneasy place to be. It had been centuries since the last prophet had risen to deliver a message from God. In some sense the Jews felt that they had been abandoned by God. There were a variety of Jewish sects and a kind of caste system had developed. It was a time of clashes and competing claims and tensions made all the worse by being under the thumb of the Romans. The Jews awaited the Messiah or at least another prophet. John, the ascetic and fiery preacher, filled the bill. He was widely regarded as a prophet and people listened intently to his message, trying to discern the meaning for the nation, for the chosen people of God.
According to Luke’s telling of this story, the authorities were frightened of being stoned by the crowd. Historians estimate that Jerusalem swelled to as many as 2.5 million people during Passover. It’s easy to imagine such large numbers of people being unruly, loud, and testy cramped into uncomfortable and probably undesirable quarters. Rumors could sweep quickly through the city, inciting people to intemperate reactions. It was a setting ripe for confrontation.
As happened regularly with his opponents, Jesus had the authorities on the horns of a dilemma. John had made it clear that Jesus was the anointed one of God. If the authorities agreed that John was right, then they had to cede their authority to Jesus. If they denied that John was a prophet, they could lose all credibility and, hence, the power that comes with authority with the people. They considered a calculus of responses, finally giving no response at all. Their authority was a sham, a shallow preoccupation with their own status and standing with the people. Their authority was a sham because it didn’t reside in God’s authority; it was self-considered. Jesus on the other hand always drew his authority from his Father and made it clear that everything he did was his Father’s will and done with His power.
This scene makes me think of the times I have responded, “I don’t know,” when, in fact, I did or at least had a strong hunch. But I was too much of a coward to take a stand. I was too afraid of being disliked or disputed or disregarded. It’s fine to say, “I don’t know,” when I truly don’t. It’s another to abandon my principles or faith for expediency or safety.
Jesus was trying to engage the authorities in a discussion, trying to get them to consider the possibility that God was among them, trying to help them understand God’s message for them and for their people. He failed because the authorities were not willing to take a risk, not willing to acknowledge that Jesus was someone greater than themselves. They weren’t willing to repent as John preached and weren’t willing to ask for and receive God’s forgiveness for their wilfulness and deceit.
Similarly, Jesus wants me to give up my false authority, my desire for control. He wants me to stand on my principles and stand up for my faith. He wants to engage me in discussion, in consideration of how to establish God’s kingdom here on earth and now at this time. I can’t claim to know that I don’t know how to do that, that I don’t know what his message is, that I don’t know what the answers are. He has made that crystal clear and is whose authority he speaks. Every day he asks me questions and waits for my responses, trusting that I will not hide behind feigned ignorance. But when I do, he will forgive me and ask me again.