Sunday, January 18, 2015

Authenticity and Authority

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.“By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you authority to do this?”

Jesus replied, “I will ask you one question. Answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. John’s baptism—was it from heaven, or of human origin? Tell me!”

They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin’ …” (They feared the people, for everyone held that John really was a prophet.)

So they answered Jesus, “We don’t know.”

Jesus said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.”
[Mark 11:11-32, NIV]

Following Mark's fig sandwich (temple-cleansing between 2 slices of ficus), the evangelist reports this discussion of authority. While the pericope calls into question the prevarication of the elders, we ought not slide past Jesus' interrogation of the authentication of authority. The elders' question is twofold: they want to know what authority, and who is doing the authorizing. Jesus restricts any response he might have to the what, as he poses his twofold query: was John's baptism authentic (of heaven), or not (of human origin).

This is a fascinating rhetorical moment. Jesus masterfully turns the tables on the elders, hinging his own response on theirs. The elders do not reproach him for his impudence, but instead cower under political correctness. We are privy to their dilemma: they cannot say authentic, lest they condemn themselves by admitting to disparaging the power of heaven; then cannot say inauthentic, because the people are convinced of the authenticity of John's baptism. They reach the decision to feign ignorance: ignoramus et ignoramibus. Jesus, sensing their insincerity (or their subterfuge), declines to respond to their challenge. We do not know with what mood the elders leave the scene. Some of them will be more assertive at Jesus' trial.

Jesus' transgressive rhetoric not only reduces the elders to weak argument, but queries their authority to ask their questions in the first place. The immediate antecedent to their questions is, of course, the cleansing of the temple (did they hear of the withered ficus?), but all of Jesus' activity to this point is in play. Perhaps some of them witnessed his authority in action as recorded in the previous chapters. Perhaps they are still licking their wounds after Jesus rebukes them for embracing human tradition over the command of God (Mk. 7:8-9 ff.). Jesus still awaits their response to his questions about their authority, about the authenticity of their traditions vis a vis the authenticity of the divine commandments. Do their challenges to his authority and authenticity arise from their human traditions or from heaven?

The questions about John's baptism are surrogates for Jesus' own authority: and here is Jesus' effectiveness in this pericope--he provocatively asks the elders to answer their own questions; they seem to know the answers. The authority of Jesus has the same authority and author as John's baptism: the divine, of heaven, of God.

Violence stirs in their hearts.

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