v 33. So they finally replied, “We don’t know.” And Jesus responded, “Then I won’t tell you by what authority I do these things.”
The Jewish leaders were themselves on the horns of a dilemma; their attitude to John the Baptist had been ambivalent because they had not wanted to be seen as losing their own status and power-base. Now the same thing was happening with Jesus and these leaders were afraid to admit what they thought about Jesus.
What started as a challenge to Jesus suddenly rebounded to become a difficult moment of challenge for the Jewish authorities. Jesus touched them at the heart of their stubborn, self-centred attitudes. They had not cared about John because he challenged the formality of their religious leadership, and now Jesus was doing the same. Their supreme motivation was a desire to remain in control of religious affairs. Upstarts like John and Jesus did not fit into their neat scheme of things. Nowadays, we might call them ‘control-freaks’; attitudes of that kind have always been an issue for certain leaders.
Perhaps you have met it in an employment situation; the boss has laid down ‘laws’ and woe betide you if you dared even to question them. S/he knows what is right and how things should happen, and yet you sense something of the selfishness or insecurity that lies behind that controlling nature. These attitudes are not unknown in clubs and societies, and even in Churches!
Jesus spoke from a different perspective; there was no trace of self-interest in what He said or did; He exhibited no hint of insecurity and He allowed those around Him to make up their own minds. He invited people rather than trying to pressurise them into believing and following Him, and we catch glimpses of His sadness when they turn away. He left Judas to make up his own mind when it came to betraying Him; and we nowhere find Him trying to control outcomes in His own favour.
In the story we read today Jesus is trying to prompt these Jewish leaders to think for themselves. He knew they needed to sort out their views about both John the Baptist and Himself. Jesus’ response was not a rebuke, but a challenge from Jesus to think clearly about Himself without self-interest at heart.
Control-freaks cannot follow Jesus! They are motivated by self-interest and a desire to do things their own way. Following Jesus requires us all to let go of this inner and quite natural desire to get our own way. When we acknowledge Jesus as Lord we have to put to death any control-freak tendencies. So here we see Jesus, a Man like no other, able to challenge misguided and self-interested authorities.