They came once more to Jerusalem. And as he was walking in the temple court the chief priests, lawyers, and elders came to him and said, 'By what authority are you acting like this? Who gave you authority to act in this way?' Jesus said to them, 'I will ask you one question; and if you give me an answer, I will tell you by what authority I act. The baptism of John: was it from God, or from men? Answer me.' This set them arguing among themselves: 'What shall we say? If we say, "from God", he will say, "Then why did you not believe him?" Shall we say, "from men"? - but they were afraid of the people, for all held that John was in fact a prophet. So they answered Jesus, 'We do not know.' And Jesus said to them, 'Then neither will I tell you by what authority I act.' Mark 11:27-33
Verse 27: This is a most serious conversation as it takes place just outside the great temple in Jerusalem. Indeed, these religious heavy-hitters have turned the temple court into a courtroom! They have had their heads together conspiring how to deal with Jesus, which usually means how to trip him up so they can have something to hold against him. Humanly speaking, it's a very ugly scene. We're all aware of sinister back room deals, off stage plotting, when people get together secretly in the dead of night.
Verse 28: Put-out by the recent actions of Jesus: curing the blind man, turning the temple salesroom upside down, even 'cursing' the fig-tree: they open their cross examination in a rather condescending way - as if they were speaking to a child, outsider or new comer: "Who made you the boss" or "Who left you in charge" It's very testy. I remember once the pastor was out of town for some days and I was left in charge. When I asked a little parish group about what I considered to be a rather wasteful decision their reaction to me was indignant and contentious. "This isn't what the pastor meant when he left you in charge." I feel for Jesus.
Verse 29: But Jesus is smart (smarter than I) and he never answers a testy question directly, but always by asking a question of his own. I think he did this because he's a good teacher and good teachers don't fill the heads of their pupils with information but they draw out of people what they either already know or can discover for themselves. That's the best way to learn.
Verses 30,31: But because they have a hidden agenda - their hearts are not clean and they dissolve into arguing among themselves. They're threatened that the people are ignoring them and following Jesus.
Verses 32,33: They want the authority - the divine commission - and resent any suggestion that Jesus might have it. Or worse yet, that they had LOST God's commission. They can't handle this, and as people often do when they are confronted with the truth about themselves, they resort to anger. They can't answer Jesus' question because it clearly requires some real soul-searching, some self-examination.
The truth about ourselves is sometimes difficult to face. I mean, how many people, not a few of whom are religious, carry a lot of arrogance, anger and hate inside? It's not fun confronting that. But Jesus says, "The truth will set you free." John 8:32 Some people would want to reduce "the truth" to the truth of their doctrines. I'd suggest it's much bigger than that. Indeed, debating the truth of doctrines could be a handy way of getting self-examination off my own plate. But that's how we come to wholeness and wellness. These religious guys will have none of it. I imagine Jesus smiled (not unkindly) and turned from them with a little shrug of his shoulders.