By whose authority?

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.”

Mark 11:27-33

As a regular at the cinema, I object to the outrageous price of Pick ‘n’ Mix that cinema chains charge, as you might have seen if you read the last article in our “Mark Marathon” series.  Now, imagine if one day I got so angry about the issue that I started turning over the sweet counter and tipping over the cash desk.  I should imagine that if I did this, it would not take long for the cinema manager to come over and demand to know what I thought I was doing.  They’d think I’d gone mad and tell me that I had no right to act in this way.  If I told them that I was a senior executive of the company and that I was unhappy with how they were ripping our customers off, they would be in a bit of a quandary.  Surely a senior executive would not act this way in a cinema, would he?  If they didn’t believe me, they might face the wrath of their boss if I was telling the truth.  Do they believe me and accept that they have been ripping off their punters, or do they think I’m bluffing?

This passage from Mark’s Gospel sees the religious leaders facing an even more problematic situation.  Jesus has just gone through the Temple, tipping over tables, shouting, and generally causing trouble.  There is no doubt that they would be enraged by this; they would have suffered embarrassment, and would almost certainly have lost money as a consequence of Jesus’ actions.  Just who did this man think he was?  He had no right to do this!  It didn’t take too long for representatives of the Sanhedrin, which comprised the chief priests, teachers of the law and the elders, to approach Jesus to demand what gave him the right to act the way that he had.  For them, it was a matter of authority.  They had been given authority to run the Temple, and this guy lacked any authority to act in the way that he had.

Jesus answers them with a question: were the actions of John the Baptist from God, or was he acting solely on his own initiative?  This presented the Sanhedrin with a problem.  John the Baptist was a hugely popular figure, attracting significant numbers of followers.  Indeed, Mark tells us that “the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him” (Mark 1:5).  His popularity was not really surprising; he was regarded as the first prophet for over a thousand years, and was building up expectation of the imminent arrival of the promised messiah.  John was a thorn in the sides of the religious leaders – he spoke out against them, memorably describing a group of Pharisees and Sadducees as a “brood of vipers” (Matthew 3:7), but was clearly popular with the people.  If the Sanhedrin answered Jesus by saying that John was not from God, they faced a huge backlash from their people who would be outraged that their own religious leaders did not accept John’s identity.  If they accepted that John was indeed a representative of God, then they faced an even more difficult situation; they would effectively be accepting that Jesus was also of God.

At this stage it’s worth turning back briefly to the beginning of Mark’s gospel.  Here we witness the ministry of John the Baptist.  He announced the arrival of the messiah, proclaiming “prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him” (Mark 1:3), and stating that “after me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie.  I baptise you with water, but he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit” (Mark 1:7-8).  A little later, Jesus himself appears and is baptised by John.  Immediately after his baptism a voice announced from heaven, “you are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:11).  All of this activity pointed to the fact that Jesus was the promised messiah, whom the Jewish people had been eagerly awaiting for centuries.  The problem for the religious leaders of the day is that they had not responded to John the Baptist’s call to “repent and believe the good news” (Mark 1:15); instead, they had continued in exactly the same manner that they had always done, ripping off the people and corrupting the Temple, which is what aroused Jesus’ anger that we witnessed in the last article on this series.  The greater problem, though, was that John had pointed to Jesus as the messiah.  If John was indeed a prophet of God, then Jesus must in fact be the messiah, and so he would indeed have authority over the religious leaders and the Temple.

Facing a lose-lose situation, the Sanhedrin fudge the issue and avoid giving in answer, preferring the non-committal “we don’t know” that we see in verse 33.  Since they refused to answer Jesus’ question, he refuses to answer theirs.  Instead, he speaks to them in a parable, which we’ll reflect on in the next article in this series.  From this incident, though, it is becoming clear to the Sanhedrin that Jesus is going to be a real issue for them; they simply do not know how to respond to him.  If they accept that he is who he says he is, then they lose face and risk their elevated positions in Jewish society, since their behaviour will be revealed.  If they dismiss him, they risk enraging the people whom they claim to lead and, potentially, if Jesus was the Christ, risk losing their salvation.  What is clear, though, is that Jesus is not going to go away, and sooner or later they were undoubtedly going to have to make a decision; they could not fudge the issue for ever.

The issue for us here is that we are in a position not too dissimilar to the Sanhedrin.  Do we accept that Jesus is the messiah, that he is the Son of God?  If we do then we have to face up to the mistakes that we’ve made previously, admit to God that we’ve not lived in the way he would have us live, and ask for repentance.  We also have to change the way that we live our lives, striving to follow the teachings of Jesus.  That is by no means an easy decision to make; none of us like admitting that we’ve been wrong and owning up to our mistakes.  The other option is to go the other way, dismiss the evidence that we have presented to us, and regard Jesus as a fraud, who has no authority over our lives.  Alternatively, we can go the way of the Sanhedrin, and fudge the issue, saying that “we don’t know” who Jesus is.  Just as the religious leaders would surely have to make a decision sooner or later, however, the time will come when we have to nail our colours to the mast, and declare who we believe Jesus to be.  As Jesus said, “whoever is not with me is against me” (Matthew 12:30).

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