Friday, December 17, 2004

In the Absence of an Honest Answer

When I first read this story from Mathew, I was bamboozled, and did not know what to make of it. I read it again this week as it came up in this weeks' gospel readings; I think I'm beginning to understand.
Mt 21:23-27 When Jesus had come into the temple area, the chief priests and the elders of the people approached him as he was teaching and said, "By what authority are you doing these things? And who gave you this authority?" Jesus said to them in reply, "I shall ask you one question, and if you answer it for me, then I shall tell you by what authority I do these things. Where was John's baptism from? Was it of heavenly or of human origin?" They discussed this among themselves and said, "If we say ‘Of heavenly origin,' he will say to us, ‘Then why did you not believe him?' But if we say, ‘Of human origin,' we fear the crowd, for they all regard John as a prophet." So they said to Jesus in reply, "We do not know." He himself said to them, "Neither shall I tell you by what authority I do these things."
The trick here is to understand why the priests refuse to answer Jesus' question. They refuse because they can see that both of the responses they are considering will lead to a sacrifice of their power and stature. The first response would be to admit that God is active in the world, and since that is so, they must seek him out and obey as best they can. The second response would reveal that they are hypocrites, and that would result in a loss of face. In the second response we see that they are not even true to their own hearts and minds when doing so would bring about a negative consequence. Since they are loyal to nothing more than their own self interest - unwilling to admit to God's presence, and unwilling to suffer any penalty for acting on that belief - God will have nothing to do with them. The first choice is the better one, but the second is at least open to correction. The answer they give is a solopsistic nothing. And, giving nothing, they get nothing. (The story has me thinking about Clintonian "triangulation.") That is my take on this little episode. Another blogger offers his thoughts here (Tip: Living Catholicism).

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