So far in Holy Week, Jesus has ridden into Jerusalem the way a king would and allowed the crowds to welcome him as one, and then he went straight to the heart of the nation (the temple) and in the strongest words and actions possible, made clear that judgment was coming upon it. With those things having happened, one would not have had to be a prophet to foresee confrontation coming. The morning after Jesus briefly–yet powerfully and symbolically–stopped all of the activity in the temple, he returned there. As expected, the confrontation came:
One day as Jesus was teaching the people in the temple courts and proclaiming the good news, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, together with the elders, came up to him. “Tell us by what authority you are doing these things,” they said. “Who gave you this authority?”
He replied, “I will also ask you a question. Tell me: John’s baptism—was it from heaven, or of human origin?”
They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Why didn’t you believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ all the people will stone us, because they are persuaded that John was a prophet.”
So they answered, “We don’t know where it was from.”
Jesus said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.” (Luke 20:1-8, NIV)
The authorities' question to Jesus was a natural one. He had been acting like the person in charge–of the temple, of Jerusalem, and therefore of all Israel–but according to the system, he was a nobody. They were the ones who had the positions of power, not him. "By what authority are you doing these things?" is both a question and an accusation, similar to asking, "Just who in the world do you think you are?"
At first glance, Jesus' response about John the Baptist looks like a clever trick question, allowing both sides to avoid answering the other's question, but Jesus was actually providing a clear answer to them. When asked, "Who in the world do you think you are?" Jesus points them back to John the Baptist, whose claim to be the forerunner of the Messiah said plenty about who Jesus was–if John really was God's prophet. At another level, by referencing John, Jesus is pointing back to his own baptism at John's hand, when a voice came from heaven and said, "You are my son, whom I love. With you I am well pleased." Jesus was saying, "That is who I am, and where I get my authority."
If John the Baptist was a fake, so was Jesus, and the establishment would have the right to treat him as such. But if John was the real thing, then Jesus clearly had more authority over the temple, Jerusalem, Israel–and the world–than any of the men questioning him.
So we could turn Jesus response into a statement rather than a question: "Who in the world do you think you are? What kind of authority do you think you have to do things like this?" "I am the one who came after John, with all that that means."
Jesus then went on teaching in the temple, continuing to say extremely provocative things about the temple and its leaders. He told stories (in which the parallels were not difficult to draw) about people in power mistreating, even killing, their master's servants. He pointed out their hypocrisy and injustice toward the innocent, and the price that others–like a poor widow giving all she had in an offering–paid for it.
Yes, the temple was beautiful, but if Israel continued to reject God's way, which was being perfectly embodied before them in Jesus, it was inevitable that the temple's destruction was coming. "Not one stone will be left on another."
Of course this was shocking. It was like taking all of our meaningful national sites which we assume will be around forever, and saying, "Every one of these will be turned into ruins–and it will happen while our generation is still here to see it."
The only way to describe something so tumultuous would be to use language that could communicate the earth-shattering nature of the events, like the old prophets did: "the sun will go dark, the moon won't give any light, the stars will fall out of the sky" (see Matthew 24).
Israel was headed on a course for destruction, and if they continued to refuse Jesus' message and change direction (repent), their doom was inevitable. (As we mentioned yesterday–it all happened about 40 years later, and it was indeed as horrible as Jesus described.)
I said yesterday that Jesus' fate was sealed after riding into the city as a king and saying/doing what he said/did in the temple. Now, after an extra day of saying such provocative things about the temple and its leadership, it was extra-sealed. The authorities would not allow this man to live.
Though those in Jesus' circle must have been aware of the tension and conflict, many of them still didn't grasp what it meant. Still thinking of Jesus as the kind of Messiah they had always expected, they couldn't foresee what was coming for him in a few more days.
At least one woman understood, though. She saw what was happening with clarity. After the intense day in the temple, Jesus and his group returned for the evening to Bethany. While guests in a home, eating dinner with the twelve, this woman came in, approached Jesus, and unreservedly poured very expensive perfume on him, as one would do to a corpse before burying it. She knew what Jesus knew–he was about to die.
Again, as we mentioned yesterday, when we watch this story unfold, it is impossible to look at Jesus as a helpless victim. Rather, in the kind of way he described as "lose your life and you will find it," he seems to be in control of what was happening.
A Prayer for the Day:
O God, by the passion of your blessed Son you made an instrument of shameful death to be for us the means of life: Grant us so to glory in the cross of Christ, that we may gladly suffer shame and loss for the sake of your Son our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.*
*From The Book of Common Prayer
[This is part of 40 Days of Prayer: Daily Emails for Lent]