A few weeks ago I read this brilliant column in Christian Century by Bruce K. Modahl, the Sept. 16 “Living by the Word” column about Matt 21: 23-32. Prior to this, Jesus has cleansed the temple, and preached, and listened to the children. He’s at the height of his story in terms of worldly values such as success, if success is numbers and public praise. Well Chief priests and the elders are unhappy about all this. They demand to know his authority.
Since it is a trap, Jesus swings it back to them, and here is how the brilliant Mr. Modahl puts it:
The question is a trap: Jesus can either walk into a blasphemy charge or lose credibility with the people. Instead, he asserts authority over his interrogators by answering their question with a question of his own—one that poses its own trap: “By what authority did John baptize?” Say it’s by human authority, and they’re in trouble with the people; say it’s by God’s authority, and everyone will want to know why they did not get baptized, too. So the chief priests and elders say, “We don’t know.” That’s a safe choice. Sometimes, “I don’t know” is the most honest answer.
But they aren’t being honest. These religious leaders did not submit to John’s baptism because it was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, and in their view they had nothing to repent. They bore no blame, at least none for which they would seek John’s baptism or Jesus’ mediation.
So… do we repent? Do we need forgiveness of sins? Not mere behaviors that are cultural no-no’s, right, but bone-deep weariness of failing to live with joy, peace, love, gratitude, hope and so on? Maybe we blame ourselves too much for some things and not enough for others or we let ourselves off the hook?
And what the heck was Jesus doing being baptized for the forgiveness of sins?
Mr. Modahl writes:
Jesus submits to John’s baptism in order to line up with all those who accept their blame and acknowledge their need of God’s grace. And there he is, God’s grace in the flesh.
Or as John puts it: “Behold the lamb of God come to take away the sins of the world”.
I love this connection between Jesus and John the Baptist. I love that what was so random to me a few months ago seems to be knit in a wonderful pattern now. And as so often, it leads us ever deeper into understanding who Jesus is and, therefore, into joy. And some sadness — John, of course, isn’t around to hear Jesus use him to get out of a trap. I am quite positive in my heart that John would have been happy and laughing. They gave him such grief! They were so afraid of him, they didn’t even listen to him or look where he was pointing. And now that comes back to bite them. Perhaps I’m taking a little too much joy out of the authorities being trapped…. perhaps I should be nicer. They didn’t know, right? That turns out to be, actually, the truth.
What might have happened if the authorities had understood how much they didn’t know? If they had been honest about it? What sort of amazing world would that be? What did they think about later that night as they tried to fall asleep? Did they regret their trap? Did they just get angry? Did they think about John’s testimony and baptisting again and wonder if they made a horrid mistake? Did they just eat dinner and roll their eyes at what men who spend time in the desert do and say? Could they, even then, change their minds and know their sins like the tax collectors, bone deep and weary? Can we, living in such different time and place, relate to those listening to Jesus?