By James Cornwell
A Reading from the Gospel of Matthew 21:23-32
23 When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” 24 Jesus said to them, ‘I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. 25 Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ 26 But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” 27 So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.
28 “What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ 29 He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. 30 The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. 31 Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32 For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax-collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.”
Jesus answers a question from the religious leaders with another question. They ask where Jesus’ authority comes from; Jesus responds that he will tell them, but they must first answer whether they believe the baptism of John came from heaven or from men.
Perhaps Jesus truly wants to know what the chief priests and rabbis really think, but that doesn’t seem to be his primary goal. He asks because he wants to reveal that their inquiries have actually nothing to do with the pursuit of truth. According to the text, the religious leaders claim not to know the answer because they’re afraid of how either answer will make them look in front of others. Stating that the baptism came from heaven would make them look bad in front of their elite peers; stating that it came from men would make them look bad in front of the multitude. By answering the question posed to him with a question, Jesus reveals that the animating concern of the chief priests and rabbis is not truth, but fear of remaining popular with two worldly groups.
How much of our discourse today is infected with the same two fears? How much of what we state publicly before others is guided not by an honest and earnest pursuit of truth, but instead by a kind of posturing to either gain favor with those among the powerful or to flatter populist sensibilities? In today’s reading, Jesus makes it clear that he will only disclose his authority to those who are guilelessly seeking after the truth, and such truth-seeking requires a willingness to submit one’s actual beliefs to potentially unpopular public scrutiny. Let us ensure that when called upon, we are willing to state unequivocally, with humility and love, those things which we believe, that Jesus might be willing to show us the Father.
James Cornwell lives and teaches in the Hudson Valley with his wife Sarah and their six children.
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Daily Devotional Cycle of Prayer
Today we pray for:
The Diocese of Ife East (Church of Nigeria)
Church of the Redeemer, Sarasota, Fla.