Jesus and his disciples came to Jerusalem. As he was walking in the temple, the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders came to him and said, ‘By what authority are you doing these things? Who gave you this authority to do them?’ Jesus said to them, ‘I will ask you one question; answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin? Answer me.’ They argued with one another, ‘If we say, “From heaven”, he will say, “Why then did you not believe him?” But shall we say, “Of human origin”?’—they were afraid of the crowd, for all regarded John as truly a prophet. So they answered Jesus, ‘We do not know.’ And Jesus said to them, ‘Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.’
Many of us enjoy word games. For some the daily tussle with the tortured mind that put together the latest cryptic crossword is something to be viewed with eager anticipation. For some a game of Scrabble is the best thing ever. Whether these things excite you or leave you cold, most people admire those who can use words in a way that demonstrates mastery of language.
Words are so often used to assert dominance over those less articulate than ourselves. In today’s reading we see the learned Jewish chief priests, scribes and elders being outwitted by the wandering rabbi we know to be the Son of God.
Jesus did not live in an impressive palace, and Jesus would not have struck anyone as being particularly well-educated. As they approached Jesus with their ‘killer question’, they would not have expected the response they got. Jesus had no problem with explaining who he was, even if such knowledge could not be understood by the people amongst whom he moved, but first he required an answer of his interrogators. Jesus, the one whose ministry began with his being baptized in the River Jordan by John, asked the religious leaders for their assessment of that baptism.
The chief priests, scribes and elders were knowledgeable men and they immediately spotted the trap that had been laid for them. Should they respond with the truth, as they understood it, or should they be more political? As always in such situations, there was division, doubt and fear. To give one answer would result in undermining their power base, to give the opposite answer would bring them into physical danger. Even those educated chief priests, scribes and elders could not find the route out of the linguistic minefield into which they had unwittingly wandered. They ended up saying nothing.
As followers of Jesus Christ we are called to be bold disciples and apostles, honouring and proclaiming the Good News of his Incarnation, Resurrection and Ascension. But, we do not always do that. Even when we are confronted with the most straightforward of questions about our faith, we obfuscate, we prevaricate, we throw a veil over our beliefs. In effect, we deny Our Lord, we join Peter on that fateful night in the High Priest’s courtyard.
Today, and every day, Jesus is asking us: Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin? Today, and every day, we are being challenged to show the difference that that baptism has made to us. Sadly, we don’t always prove ourselves to be better witnesses than those dithering chief priests, scribes and elders. We avoid the question, or we play with words in a way that ‘softens’ our answer, that makes it less overtly ‘Christian’.
Let us pray that we might, through the inspiration and the strength of the Holy Spirit, never fall into the trap of denying our Lord and Saviour because of our fear of the reactions of others. Let us go boldly about the world declaring our faith, and the joy of that faith, in Jesus Christ. Let us show the world what a difference that can really make!