Luke 20:1-8

One day, as he was teaching the people in the temple and telling the good news, the chief priests and the scribes came with the elders and said to him, “Tell us, by what authority are you doing these things? Who is it who gave you this authority?” He answered them, “I will also ask you a question, and you tell me: Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” They discussed it with one another, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say, ‘Why did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ all the people will stone us; for they are convinced that John was a prophet.” So they answered that they did not know where it came from. Then Jesus said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.”

Luke begins this scene so placidly it’s almost easy to forget what just happened. “One day, as he was teaching the people in the Temple and telling the good news….” You could go almost anywhere with that beginning. It sounds so ordinary.

But of course it’s not. The second half of the sentence reminds us just where we are in Luke’s story of Jesus. We’re in the Temple. The Temple that is a mainstay of economic as well as religious power in Jerusalem. The Temple that changed money and sold pigeons and other animals so people could make the appropriate sacrifices throughout the year but especially during the days leading up to Passover. The Temple that for this reason made money for the folks working there and, in turn, for the Romans who taxed all that took place. The Temple, finally, where just earlier Jesus had expelled all those who were cheating the poor by taking advantage of their religious piety. That Temple.

Little wonder then, that Luke’s innocuous opening quickly turns confrontational, as the chief priests and scribes want to know by what authority Jesus is doing “these things” – teaching and preaching for sure, but even more taking charge of the Temple.

Their question is meant to put Jesus in a bind. If he answers that his authority is from heaven they can ask for proof or perhaps accuse him of blasphemy, saying that he is laying claim to God’s own authority. But if he answers that his authority is from a human source, then they can challenge him, declaring that their authority as priests and scribes is more authentic and important.

But rather than fall into this trap, Jesus does what many an astute debater has done: he turns the question around, and asks them to declare where John the Baptism derived his authority. And now they are in a bind. John, you see, was immensely popular with the people, a champion of the poor, one willing to speak truth to power, and a martyr. So should they say John’s authority came from heaven – the answer the people no doubt believed – Jesus could ask them why they didn’t submit to John’s baptism. And should they answer that John’s authority was from humans, they would run afoul of the masses who believed John was a prophet.

It’s a clever answer. Clever and perceptive and astute. For when his opponents fail to answer his question, Jesus is free to refuse to answer theirs.

Yes, it is an astute answer. But at this point in the story, it only buys Jesus a little more time. For as the tone and tenor of this passage suggests, the conflict between Jesus and the authorities in Jerusalem is mounting. He has issued his great challenge in driving the corrupt moneychangers from the Temple and messing with a revenue source for both the Empire and the religious establishment. All of which means that what he said on the road about his mission in Jerusalem is approaching its fulfillment.

Prayer: Dear God, keep our eyes fastened on your Son as he proclaims your word of mercy, grace, and forgiveness in word and deed. In Jesus’ name, Amen.