This is the thirty-third installment, comprising Act 5, Scene 4, chapter 11: 27-33 in the online commentary on the Gospel of Mark, which I am blogging on throughout the liturgical year. Please see the thirty-second installment here. Links to the entire series are available in one spot at The Complete Gospel of Mark Online Commentary.
This is my division of the Gospel:
Act 1, 1:14-3:6;
Act 2, 3:7-6:6;
Act 3, 6:7-8:26;
Act 4, 8:27-10:52;
Act 5, 11:1-13:37;
Act 6, 14:1-16:8(20).
27 Again they came to Jerusalem. As he was walking in the temple, the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders came to him 28 and said, "By what authority are you doing these things? Who gave you this authority to do them?" 29 Jesus said to them, "I will ask you one question; answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things. 30 Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin? Answer me." 31 They argued with one another, "If we say, "From heaven,' he will say, "Why then did you not believe him?' 32 But shall we say, "Of human origin'?"—they were afraid of the crowd, for all regarded John as truly a prophet. 33 So they answered Jesus, "We do not know." And Jesus said to them, "Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things."(NRSV)
Mark has created additional drama in Act 5 by creating a “new” entry for Jesus into Jerusalem each day: he has entered Jerusalem as a King, examined the Temple and left at nightfall with his disciples; he came back to the city, cursed the fig tree, cleansed the Temple and left the city at nightfall with his disciples; now he returns for a third time with his disciples and returns to the Temple. There is a sort of insouciance or nonchalance in the way in which Mark describes Jesus return to Jerusalem and to the Temple: “again they came to Jerusalem. As he was walking in the temple…” (11:27). Ah, yes Mark, was Jesus walking in the Temple? No tension? No drama? No concern, if not with Jesus than with his disciples? Mark describes none of it. You would think that nothing of significance had happened with respect to Jesus and the Temple in the last day or so. Will Jesus leave at nightfall again with his disciples? If Mark has lowered the tension with Jesus’ relaxed return to the Temple, if the action in the Temple seems far distant to Mark’s concerns, it is not distant for the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders who “came to him” (11:27).
The arrival of the Jewish authorities reminds us again of what is at stake in Jesus’ sojourn in Jerusalem, something we have noted since the end of Act 1 and which Jesus himself reminded us throughout Act 4. The question they ask is a fair one, for as the guardians of the traditions and laws of the Jewish people, laws bequeathed to them by God, they have an official stake in the smooth operations of the Temple. They ask, “By what authority are you doing these things? Who gave you this authority to do them?” (11:28). Indeed, this is what has been at issue for the Jewish authorities throughout the Gospel: if God has given us authority to interpret the Torah and Temple, whose authority do you represent in your teachings and actions? Jesus has been asked to explain himself and his behavior.
Jesus’ response is to place the onus back on the chief priests, scribes and elders: “I will ask you one question; answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin? Answer me” (11:29-30). Mark’s Gospelopens with Jesus’ baptism by John, and John’s claim that Jesus is the fulfillment of his mission. If this is the case, do the Jewish authorities see Jesus as a part of John’s prophetic message and do they believe that John’s prophetic message is true or false? Is it “from heaven” or “of human origin”?
Mark’s ending to the scene is tense and believable, human but not precisely divine. It has the whiff of political maneuvering not an attempt to find a straight answer, either to Jesus’ question or their own. Do they really care if Jesus’ authority is from God or have they already ruled it out? Their discussion suggests that they do not believe his authority is from God. This is always the danger of having even properly invested authority: it is hard to see something new being done in your midst, especially if it threatens your own conception of and hold on authority. Mark’s presentation indicates that their arguing was an attempt to find the “right” answer not the “true” answer: “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But shall we say, ‘Of human origin’?”—they were afraid of the crowd, for all regarded John as truly a prophet. So they answered Jesus, ‘We do not know’” (11:31-32).
Their answer is an ancient “No Comment!” or perhaps a desire not to incriminate themselves. If they lean in any direction it would seem to be in rejecting John’s and so Jesus’ divine authority, for “they did not believe” John and follow him. Still, the crowd frightens them, again lending credence as to the reason why they have not yet arrested Jesus. As a result, they are not willing to speak out against John or Jesus. If there was a genuine wrestling with this issue, a desire to discern Jesus’ person and mission, my sense is he would reach out to the authorities, attempt to convince them, draw them closer to him.
The fact that it is only an attempt to protect themselves leads Jesus to challenge them once again: “Jesus said to them, ‘Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things’” (11:33). Mark ends the scene with this comment. If they truly want to know Jesus’ authority they are going to have to decide on the evidence he has presented them, but it will take discernment, not an attempt to trap him.
John W. Martens
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