Yes or no. Black or white. Left or right. Choose, vote, make a decision. Which will it be?
There’s a story in Matthew, Mark, and Luke in which Jesus caught his opponents on the horns of a dilemma. The incident followed on the heels of the Triumphal Entry, the cleansing of the temple, and the cursing of the fig tree, all of which threw the conflict between Jesus and the established religious order into sharp relief.
He was in the temple courts, teaching as usual. Rabbis were supposed to teach with the authority of tradition. But Jesus consistently amazed the crowds by teaching with his own authority (Matt 7:28-29), and was no doubt doing so when some chief priests and other leading citizens came to question Jesus about his credentials. By whose authority did he dare to do all these things?
Jesus, of course, refused to play the game on their terms. Here’s Matthew’s account:
Jesus replied, “I will also ask you one question. If you answer me, I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. John’s baptism–where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or of human origin?” 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’–we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We don’t know.” Then he said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.” (Matt 21:23-27, NIV)
I imagine Jesus’ opponents huddled together in the temple courts, quietly arguing among themselves, unwilling to let the crowd hear their anxious debate. Jesus has hoisted them on their own rhetorical petard, and they know it. Either way they answer, they lose. So they dodge the question, preferring politics to theology. Like adolescents being confronted by their parents for some act of mischief, they shrug their shoulders and say, “I dunno.”
We don’t need to take Jesus’ question as merely a clever ploy, though it is at least that. It’s a serious question that deserves a serious answer. After all, what the chief priests and elders really seem to want to know is whether Jesus is the Messiah, because only the Messiah should have the authority to do the things Jesus has done. If they had believed John’s testimony in the first place, they wouldn’t be asking the question of Jesus’ authority now.
Personally, I have little doubt that they would have persisted in unbelief even if Jesus had actually answered their question. But unbelief can take many forms. Given the stark choice Jesus gave them–heaven or human?–it’s easy to assume that they simply believed the wrong thing, choosing B instead of A, taking the coward’s way out instead of standing up for what they really thought was true.
I’m not sure it’s that simple.
Here’s an alternative. It’s not simply that they made the wrong choice; at some level, they were refusing to choose, to commit, to stake a claim. They gave the face-saving answer, whose sole purpose was to minimize any possible risk to their own safety and social standing.
Much conflict in the church through the ages can be traced to concerns about doctrinal purity, and to some extent, rightly so; the boundaries of what constitutes specifically Christian belief cannot be left completely fluid. But I would guess that the far more prevalent problem is not holding the wrong things to be true, but avoiding truth that is socially or politically inconvenient.
Jesus’ opponents didn’t crucify him over a doctrinal disagreement. They killed him because it was the politically convenient thing to do (cf. John 11:45-50).
We should take care not to jump too quickly to judgment, to dismiss the chief priests and elders for being spiritually obtuse. We, like them, live under the sway of systems and institutions with their own values and goals. Within these systems, we enjoy what power and significance we have, and don’t relinquish it readily.
So while the gospel is marvelous good news, it can also upset the delicate social balances we work so hard to maintain. Are we willing to be inconvenienced?