Luke 20.1-8

One day as Jesus was teaching the people in the Temple and preaching the gospel, the chief priests and the scribes with the elders came up and said to him, “Tell us by what authority you do these things, or who it is that gave you this authority.”

He answered them, “I also will ask you a question; now tell me: Was the baptism of John from Heaven or from men?”

And 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, ‘From men’ — All the people will stone us, for they are convinced that John was a prophet.” So they answered that they did not know whence it was.

And Jesus said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.”

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12 responses

  1. The first thing that strikes me in this story is that the chief priests, scribes, and elders debate their answer by considering the politics of each possible answer. That is, they do not debate what their true answer is, what they actually think, but rather what the effect of a “God” or a “not God” answer will be. What did they really think?

    Which leads to the question: Why didn’t they oppose John in the way they opposed Jesus. John, after all, criticized them as much as Jesus did, and he worked all of his ministry in their back yard, unlike Jesus who split his time between Judea and Galilee. Was it because John never invaded their own territory, the temple? Or did they see him getting into trouble with Herodias and assumed Herod would deal with him?

    One other thought: if, like me, you see the story of the clearing of the temple in John being the same one as in the synoptic (but in the ‘wrong’ place), it is interesting to note that this attempt to determine Jesus’ place by finding his “authority” continues there when one the “pro-Jesus” Pharisees, Nicodemus, comes to him quietly, presumably to ask the same question.

  2. What strikes me first is that Jesus is preaching ‘the gospel.’ That ‘gospel’ can’t be ‘I died for your sins;’ it has to be more like “The Kingdom of God is now present and in session!”

    One Jewish commentator, sometimes mistakenly sure of himself but sometimes quite plausible, says that the actual time of the entrance & visit to the Temple is probably the Feast of Booths — because that is when Jesus as the King would be required by Deuteronomy to visit the Temple and publicly read his copy of it. This seems very likely to me to be the background to this ‘teaching’

    And it would naturally raise the questions: “Why is this man in the Temple reading Deuteronomy to a large audience? What is he implying about himself?”

    In this reading, “What is your authority and who did you get it from?” is something they’re going to want to know.

    “Where did John get his authority?” could be, as some readers see it, a particularly cunning way of deflecting the question without conceding these people’s right to ask it.

    But in a ‘real world’ context, that these priests would recognize, the answer as I’ve come to see it would have been: “The prophet John anointed me.”

    [The use of ‘a coronation psalm’ in the synoptic accounts of Jesus’ “baptism” looks like a screaming hint to me. Several examples where the major prophet of the time anoints a new King, a couple of times in secret before any public recognition of the fact. And many other things in the gospels hint that Jesus has been living that role all along, not least his implied proclamation of a Jubilee in his first visit home. “I know I’m the Messiah because God told me so?” Not going to fly with this audience! But “What do you think of John?” tests the footing for citing John’s approval.]

    As NT Wright says, the whole practice of John B was implying: ~I am rebuilding ‘Israel’ and these people I’m sending through the Jordan are it!

    The authorities in Jerusalem were not expected to like this — and did send observers, whom John did not welcome. That may have looked like ‘their backyard’ but it wasn’t the Temple itself. Trying to suppress John would have drawn attention to his message, diminished their own prestige, cast them as the baddies.

    But Jesus in The Temple was in the very center of Israel.

    Do the authorities want to know the truth/falsity of Jesus’ implied claim, as much as they want to defuse this troublesome person? Probably. We aren’t hearing their own account here. But life looks a whole lot easier for them if they can conclude: ‘just another wannabe.’

  3. The Talmid Rebbe | Reply

    “The Kingdom of God is now present and in session!” Have you ever read John Dominic Crossan? Pick up God and Empire. You’ll love it.

    If the priests don’t know by whose authority Jesus did these things, how is Jesus supposed to know? I see the answer “we don’t know” as the best possible response. If more people were willing to admit what they don’t know, the world might be a far less violent place.

    Another thing to consider: if Jesus was a proto-Rabbi, which I think he was, the Priests are absolutely in character to ask him “umm…what do you think you’re doing?” Jesus would also be in character to respond “none of your business.” The Priests did not recognize the proto-Rabbis existence in the context of Scripture. The proto-Rabbis accepted the Priests’ Temple and Sacrifice, but not their hegemony and control of religious life.

    What is the difference between a king or any man (or woman) that one should be allowed to read Deuteronomy before a large audience and the other should not? If humanity has been given dominion over all the earth, are we not all kings? And was not the appointment of a capital K king, over the rest of us kings and queens of the earth, considered a wicked act by God and man?

    1. Yes, I did love it!
      — — — —
      The priests are asking Jesus to justify himself. This may be to legitimize an already-firm opposition, or it may be an honest question; they aren’t here to say.

      His implied justification may be along the lines of “~Wisdom upholds her children!” They wouldn’t go for that as an explicit response. “None of your business” is certainly implied, because he’s too honorable to need to legitimize himself in their eyes…

      but that implication itself is not going to endear him to them.
      —- —- —-

      Jesus’ interpretations of Torah [William Herzog is good on this!] had to have made sense to his contemporaries. The similarities to Hillel suggest some common background of popular agreement; and the Rabbis who established the written tradition were heirs to that.

      Whether or not the Priests recognized authority in the Pharisees, it seems to have been expedient to at least maintain communications. That may be precisely how they’re seeing Jesus and why they’re sending a delegation.

      It’s the implications of an imposing, charismatic man, reading Deuteronomy in the Temple during the Feast of Booths (if this is indeed the context) that would set off the alarm bells.

      —– —– —-
      My reading of Jesus is as God’s response to a popular demand to “give us a King like other nations — but this time make it a good one, someone who will truly rule in Your way!”

      This is certainly an ironic response! ‘John’s interpretation, somewhat later, depicting a King who washes people’s feet (and not as an idle gesture!) points up that irony. But it’s already there in the synoptics.

      That demand is a weakness, which certainly (as you say) cumulates in wickedness whenever people try to enact it. Largely because the form this takes is deposing God’s own authority within us in favor of an external “authority-over” a world which God is already ruling, yes?

      So it looks like Jesus is taking on the role, but refusing to legitimate what he’s doing — which as you’ve said on your [quite stimulating!] blog is a universal human practice with unfortunate manifestations, perhaps more so lately…

      1. The Talmid Rebbe | Reply

        Thank you for your kind words. If you don’t mind my saying, its always a pleasure to find a live one!

        You raise an important point, but a good question becomes: What is Wisdom? Is Wisdom objective or subjective? “None of your business” I think is quite a direct implication, but I think Jesus may be suggesting there is no authority! This is a brilliant turnabout: the inquisition of Jesus becomes an inquisition of the Priests! who loved to throw around their “authority.” “By what authority do I? By what authority do you!” This was a huge part of the dynamic between the proto-Rabbis and the Priests, and it hadn’t gone away. This may be a statement about groupthink in general. It certainly didn’t endear him to that group, or to Rome, for whom Caesar was Dei Fili, as you know from reading Crossan. 🙂

        I think you can also translate that phrase, “Wisdom is justified by Her children.” Can you read this forwards and backwards?

        I agree that the appearance of a charismatic man would have set off the alarm bells. But is the presence or lack thereof of a charismatic man a God excuse to shirk your responsibilities? Is “give us a king and make it good this time” the point? Or is this yet another expression of man’s impatience with God?

  4. It’s always a pleasure to find a live one! (And one way I can tell; he keeps giving me good questions!

    Sort of a corollary/development of the saying might be: “Wisdom finds her children justified”?

    Jesus is the most subversive ‘authority’ I know — but “There is no authority”? How about, “There is no external authority”? aka “Thou shalt put no gods before Me?”

    Who is this “Me”? What relation to ‘me’? Are we rightly nervous about laying that out too explicitly, literally, concretely?

    What relation between that, and “man’s impatience with God”? We can’t claim to be entirely separate from God — and yet, every time (and we do it ‘every’ time, yes?) people try to protect themselves by trying to make God do what ‘we’ want, it imposes separation!

    Prayer? Healings? What happens?

    1. The Talmid Rebbe | Reply

      Fantastic questions. For me, the most subversive authority is imagination. We are all separate from it, but we are all part of it. This is part and parcel of the mystery we both worship. This is what makes me look up and feel small. What can be more subversive than pure potential? Which can include no potential whatsoever? Is God an authority with a capital A or a small a?

      “You shall have no gods besides me” or “before me” a warning against other gods like Molech and Chemosh? Other religions? Or anything that distracts from the creative (imaginative) activity of the universe, necessitated by Leviticus 19:18? Separation of me and me, and me and Me. People objectified, and God objectified. Hence, Object worship, and object Worship?

      What is a distraction? Sex Money Power Right Wrong Truth “GOD” Children find their Wisdom justified?

      What would happen if we all came together and let our petty differences go up in smoke and just let ourselves be? Can we make this ultimate sacrifice? Would we find the healing and reconciliation we long for, and move on to more important things? One people, but many minds, languages, beliefs, persons, all respected, all cared for, all loved? A house of prayer for all peoples? This is what I hope for, and what makes me feel small.

      At the risk of assuming a purple elephant where none exists, for the record, my answer to the question “who is Jesus” is…..I don’t know. I’m not an atheist though, I promise!

      Good Shabbos to you!

      1. Isn’t quite Shabbos yet here! (& in my sect, that isn’t an issue.)

        “Imagination.” If Ursula LeGuin were to “define” imagination, I imagine she would come up with something close to this:
        “the power of seeing things as they are.”

        [Okay, putting on a cd from the synagogue. (Anne likes the reminder too!)]

        At the root of creation… something we call ‘Spirit’. And we can’t say what that “is”, except that it’s what lives us.

        I don’t know where I’d put one of those purple elephants! Keeping them fed can be so much trouble!
        —- —- —- —- —-

        “This is what you shall do:

        Love the Earth and Sun and the animals.
        Despise riches. Give alms to everyone that asks.
        Stand up for the stupid and crazy.
        Devote your income and labor to others.
        Hate tyrants. Argue not concerning God.
        Have patience and indulgence toward the people.
        Take off your hat to nothing known or unknown
        Or to any man or number of men…. Re-examine all
        You have been told at school or church or in any book.
        Dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and
        Your very flesh shall be a great poem.”

        [Walt Whitman]

        [A pretty good list, overall, though I myself like to argue (when it’s the kind of atmosphere where two debaters might both go off saying something else afterwards…)]

        And I do argue with atheists concerning God sometimes; I think this is because I liked life a whole lot better when I stopped being one. & because it’s in accord with God’s long-term intention as I understand it: that everyone makes peace with what lives in us.

        (What you were just yearning for here ought to follow!)

        And who is Jesus? — an avatar. What is a human being? An avatar.

        But generally we all feel much too finite. [Infinite wine in a finite skin, ow!]

        “Scriptures are meant to be chanted.” Yes! They aren’t philosophical systems. And what good is a law code, unless it has good stories?

        1. The Talmid Rebbe | Reply

          Shabbos is a delight for me. If more people took a day to turn off their computers and phones, and get some sleep, would we be a happier people? That being said, I’ve been looking forward to getting back here.

          “the power of seeing things as they are.” How very beautiful, and how very zen!

          I try to keep my purple elephants in the neighbor’s yard…and then pretend i’m not the one whose crazy when asked.

          Whitman’s statement is a (wonderful and important!) statement of Prophetic Spirit. Particularly that of Amos, and Joshua (the first and the second). Can humanity learn this? More importantly, can we learn to talk more in parable than prose? This is something important that Jesus did, and something we should all learn from him. Particularly Argue Not Concerning God, and Rexamine All, in this portion.

          Walt Whitman describes the adults of God, not the children of God. Do you think God is ready for us to grow up? Although the Priests gave the best possible answer, they had an agenda here.

          My perspective on atheism, because I used to be one (too!) is very simple. God, unlike the rest of us, has the uncanny ability to be all things to all people (or we make Him that way…but let’s suspend disbelief for a second). So when the Atheist says “There is no God,” wouldn’t God say “Ok!” (there’s that imagination thing again).

          Generally we all feel much too finite: I think this is why I love study so much. We love to talk about the things the teachers of our Traditions said. When we share these and our conversations with others, do these find their way into the world to come? Does this make study and conversation the stuff of eternity?

          What good is a law code, unless it has good stories: especially stories that cement the one law we can all be sure of: we’re only human.

          1. Brief response to a little of this (my Sunday observance involves a bike ride to Meeting soon):

            “It is above all by the imagination that we achieve perception and compassion and hope.” There is much more by her on this which I don’t have time to dig through now; but she is meaning something a bit different than people initially think…

            There is enough “God” in us to deGodify things locally, if that’s how a person likes his world. But it’s like the guy who took LSD and thought he’d died — At some point he wondered: “If I’m dead, who’s running the show?”

            1. The Talmid Rebbe | Reply

              We keep each other very busy, but it’s a wonderful busy!

              Peace be with you!

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