Summary: Thw Question of Jesus Authority following the cleansing of the temple
The story is told of a ship’s captain during the war who was sailing along on a dark night and saw a light on a collision course. So he got his signaller to flash a message: "Alter your course 10 degrees south." The reply came back "Alter your course 10 degrees north." The captain then signalled "Alter your course 10 degrees south. I am a Commander." The reply came back "Alter your course 10 degrees north. I am a seaman third-class."
By this time the ship’s captain was getting furious. So he signalled: "Alter your course 10 degrees south. I am a battleship." The reply came back almost instantly: "Alter your course 10 degrees north. I am a lighthouse."
That story addresses the issue of our passage today. That is the issue of authority. Where does authority come from? Sometimes it comes from your rank or status, as the commander in that story obviously assumed. But sometimes it comes from something innate like the immovable nature of a lighthouse set above a cliff. So where do you look to for authority for your life? That’s not an easy question to ask in this day and age. Life has changed so radically in the last 50 years that what was taken for granted 50 years ago can no longer be assumed. Truth is all relative, we’re told. Authority needs to be earned.
One example of this of course is the republican debate that just won’t go away, even if it has quietened down recently. ’Should we give authority to a monarch who isn’t even an Australian?’, we’re asked. Many of those of the older generations and some from the younger generations see no problem with that. The monarchy has served us well. The queen’s authority seems indisputable. In fact a hereditary monarchy is seen by many as preferable to an elected leader because it’s free from the risk of corruption and political bias. On the other hand, argue the republicans, an elected leader has an authority given by the majority vote.
In politics, we see elected leaders who wield their authority as power; who, even when the electorate shows their dissatisfaction, continue to confuse leadership with autocratic rule. So we’re led to ask, do they have the authority to do what they want to do?
And this is just as true when we Christians criticise the actions of others in public life. When the Archbishop of Melbourne or someone like Tim Costello get up and speak out on some public issue of the moment like the reconciliation debate, by what authority can they do it?
Well, that was the very question the Pharisees and Elders and the Chief Priests, all the leaders of Israel, put to Jesus. Jesus had not only been outspoken about the social inequities of his time, he’d gone the next step of physical protest. He’d come into the temple and cleared it of money changers and merchants. And now they wanted to know by what authority he did such a thing.
They want to know who gave him the authority to do this. I sometimes get people asking me what authority I have to tell them about the things that God requires of them. Who made me the arbiter of human behaviour. Well, the answer to that question, I think is very close to the answer that Jesus gives here and in the second passage from chapter 12.
Mind you, the answer isn’t all that straightforward is it? He doesn’t just come out and say, "God told me to do it." "I’m on a mission from God." No, he’s aware that they’re trying to trap him. If he says "God sent me" then they’ve got all the evidence they need for a charge of blasphemy. No, rather than give them a direct answer, he instead gives them an answer that allows them, in fact forces them, to answer the question for themselves. He says "I will ask you one question; answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things. 30Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin? Answer me." Now why ask that particular question? What is it about John’s baptism that points to Jesus authority?
Well, let’s think about it for a moment. Perhaps we need to go back to the start of Mark’s gospel to refresh our minds. You may remember that the gospel begins with people being amazed at the authority with which Jesus taught and cast out demons. So it’s like Mark has framed his gospel with this theme of the authority of Jesus. But that’s just an aside. Let’s think about John’s baptism. What was it all about? (Mk1:4) "John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins." What was the point of this repentance and forgiveness. That’s told us in the preceding quote from Isaiah: "As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, "See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; 3the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ’Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’" John came as one who was to prepare the way for the Lord; that is, the coming Messiah. So if he was sent by God, what does that say about the one who followed him? Well, those with eyes to see and ears to hear will answer he must be the Messiah, God’s anointed one. But that isn’t all. What happened at Jesus baptism? As he was coming up from the water he saw the Spirit descending on him like a dove and a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."