I visited a Lutheran church for worship this morning, and so I heard the RCL readings. The Roman Catholic lectionary, while close to the RCL this week, omits this section of Matthew 21:
When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to 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, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.
I was quite struck by how relevant this pericope was to the topics raised by the final two speakers of the NAAE conference. Both made the point that ecumenical theological conversations, if they are to be fruitful, must sometimes entail the articulation of uncomfortable, even blunt questions; that both parties must be willing to seriously attempt to persuade the other, and just as important, must be willing to listen while the other attempts to persuade them. Both must be willing to give an honest accounting of why they believe what they believe: this is part of the definition of ecumenical accountability that was part of the conference theme.
The chief priests and the elders ask Jesus this serious question: By what authority do you do these things? On what grounds do you claim these things? Perfectly reasonable questions, especially for them to ask on their own turf, as it were, in the Jerusalem Temple.
Jesus returns the favor, and asks a serious question back: What do you think about John? By what authority did he baptize? What’s your account of his teachings? (Remember, John had been killed by Herod back in chapter 14, and Jesus “withdrew … to a lonely place apart” when he heard the news.)
It’s interesting to pause and think a minute about why Jesus asked this question in return. As very experienced readers of the gospels, we’re used to seeing all these little scenes where Jesus zings the religious authorities, either setting rhetorical traps for them or cleverly turning their traps back upon them to get the better of them. But I think there’s more going on here than just a setup.
Matthew tells us, in John’s words and in Jesus’, that John came to prepare the way for Jesus. John’s work and teaching was in some way connected to what Jesus was doing. Most recently in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus discussed this after the Transfiguration, just before the journey to Jerusalem, in Mt 17: he accepts the scribes’ teaching that Elijah must come before the Messiah, and obliquely identifies John as having fulfilled that condition.
In serious ecumenical or interfaith dialogue, sometimes you have to answer a question with a question in order to lay the groundwork for your actual answer, or in order to understand the terms in which the question is being asked, or in which you need to answer in order to be understood. If a Protestant asks me, say, “Why do you Catholics pray to Mary?” I may very well answer, “First let’s talk about prayer. What do you mean by prayer?”
I think that’s what Jesus was doing here. His answer to the question “On whose authority do you do these things?” was going to depend on how the elders understood John’s baptism.
Alas, we don’t get to hear how, because the elders fail the test of honest dialogue. They are not willing to give an honest account of how they understand John: they’re afraid to give an unpopular answer, but they can’t justify themselves if they give the popular answer. So they bail. They equivocate. They won’t commit.
It’s interesting to me that Jesus withdraws from the dialogue at this point. He refuses to have any conversation with people who will not seriously and honestly engage with him and with the material. He doesn’t use their statement of ignorance as an opportunity to tell them what HE thinks about John. He perceives that there’s no point in talking to someone who’s more worried about how their statements are going to make them look, than in the truth.