Holy Week Reflections #2: Tuesday // Questions and Answers

Old Testament Readings: Psalms 6, 12, and 94, and Lamentations 1:17-22; New Testament Readings: 2 Cor 1:8-22 and Mark 11:27-33.

The Triumphal Entry has taken place (Sunday).  Jesus’ dramatic demonstration in the Temple has been staged (Monday).  And now things are starting to heat up.  The next scene puts us right back in the Temple courts, where so much conflict and controversy is generated:

27 They arrived again in Jerusalem, and while Jesus was walking in the temple courts, the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders came to him. 28 “By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you authority to do this?”

29 Jesus replied, “I will ask you one question. Answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. 30 John’s baptism—was it from heaven, or of human origin? Tell me!”

31 They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ 32 But if we say, ‘Of human origin’ …” (They feared the people, for everyone held that John really was a prophet.)

33 So they answered Jesus, “We don’t know.”

Jesus said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.”

The religious leaders recognize that Jesus’ actions in the Temple the previous day are authoritative actions.  The scene he created clearly demonstrated that in some mysterious way, Jesus felt that the Temple belonged to him, in the same way that it belonged to Yahweh-God… “My house will be called a house a prayer”, Jesus said, quoting Isaiah, who puts those words on Yahweh’s lips.  Jesus and Yahweh are acting together in riding donkeys, cursing fig trees, and flipping over tables – or at least Jesus acted like they were, and the religious leaders recognize it.  “By what authority, they ask, “are you doing these things?”

And so Jesus, in typical Jewish-rabbi fashion, answers the question with a question.  But it is not for the sake of being coy that Jesus asks what he asks; no, it is to draw to the surface what the religious leaders really believed about all that was going on.  He is looking for them to “publish” the thoughts of their hearts.  They thought they were putting him on trial, and Jesus, as only he can do, turns the tables and puts THEM on trial, saying in response:

I will ask you one question. Answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. 30 John’s baptism—was it from heaven, or of human origin? Tell me!”

You can feel the intensity in his language here.  “ONE QUESTION” he says, “Answer it, clearly and without obfuscating, and I’ll tell you whence my actions come.”  “John’s movement… was that something that Yahweh was up to, or was that just a human thing?” he asks.

They know what’s on the line in their answers:

31 They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ 32 But if we say, ‘Of human origin’ …” (They feared the people, for everyone held that John really was a prophet.)

Should they answer that Yahweh-God had been acting in John the Baptist, then that would have led them directly to the authority of Jesus, whose sovereign claims over their lives would have blown “life as they know it” to smithereens.  Should they answer that Yahweh-God had NOT been acting in John, that it was all a human fabrication, a silly side-show, then they would have had the wrath of the people to deal with.  Much is on the line in their answer.  And they KNOW it.  So they reply:

We don’t know.

Jesus’ response to them is so telling:

Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.

Their reply was so cagey.  It was obscurantist.  Surely they HAD an opinion.  “Well, what do YOU think about all of this?” Jesus queries.  He demands that they stand up like men and publish their opinions, with all of their inevitable consequences.

And instead, like cowards lurking around in the shadows, they dodge and avoid the issues.  “We don’t know” they reply.  To which Jesus says, in effect, we have nothing more to talk about; this conversation is OVER.  He will not entertain cowardly, cagey obscurantism.  He wants answers.  “Say you’re for me; or say you’re against me… but whatever it is, be a man about it!”

What do we think about him and his way?  In the epistle reading from the day, Paul wrote:

20 For no matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ. And so through him the “Amen” is spoken by us to the glory of God. (2 Co 1)

God speaks in Jesus.  He utters his “yes.”  Paul says that he and his companions utter a clear and compelling “amen” in response to the “yes” of God in Christ Jesus.

As much as my soul is gripped by that, and as many times as I’ve quoted that text and imagined myself among the company of followers who utters that same clear and compelling “amen!” in response to the demanding “yes” of God over my life…

…I am also deeply aware of the ways in which my response is more a muttered “I guess so” than a compelling “amen!”  As often as I am Paul, I am also the religious leaders.  Sometimes I fail to respond at all to the “yes.”  Other times I obscure and obfuscate.  And still… the demanding “voice” of God, Christ Jesus, comes to me:

What do you think about all of this Andrew?  If you believe it, then publish it.  And bear the consequences, positive or negative.  If you don’t believe, then at least be man enough to say so…

God utters his “yes” in Christ Jesus.  Tragically, we mumble and stammer like cowards in response.

Lord, liberate our tongues!

Appropriately, today’s prayer (from the Book of Common Prayer) is as follows:

O God, by the passion of your blessed Son you made an instrument of shameful death to be for us the means of life: Grant us so to glory in the cross of Christ, that we may gladly suffer shame and loss for the sake of your Son our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Make it so Lord God.

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