27 Again they came to Jerusalem. As he was walking in the temple, the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders came to him 28 and said, “By what authority are you doing these things? Who gave you this authority to do them?” 29 Jesus said to them, “I will ask you one question; answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things. 30 Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin? Answer me.” 31 They argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ 32 But shall we say, ‘Of human origin’?”—they were afraid of the crowd, for all regarded John as truly a prophet. 33 So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And Jesus said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.”
Chapter 11 of the Book of Mark is critical to the plot that plays out at the end of Jesus’ life. It opens with Jesus coming into the city of Jerusalem on a donkey while onlookers sing Hosannah in the highest. Jesus cursed a fig tree, which feels contradictory to how we see Jesus. Then Jesus entered the Temple, flipped over the money-changer’s tables, and disrupted the commerce that was taking place in the common area—the area designated for all the nations as a house of prayer. Jesus left the city with his disciples and explained his reason for cursing the fig tree. But Jesus returned to the city in the morning and went straight back to the Temple, this time being confronted by the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders, who asked Jesus “by what authority are you doing these things?”
The religious leaders who approached Jesus want to know why he thinks he can get away with teaching, preaching, and disrupting the daily activities of the Temple. Jesus, recognizing the intentions of the religious leaders addressed them by asking a question of his own, “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it from human origin?”
The exchange between Jesus and the Temple leaders centered on everyone’s understanding of the word “authority.” The religious leaders believed that John was a holy man who had a divine mission to preach repentance, which was a common theme in Jewish history. John’s baptism, or ministry, however, operated outside of Jewish religious authority, as did Jesus’, and Jesus made it personal by acting out in the Temple.
So, who did have authority to teach, preach, and disrupt the temple?
Traditionally, religious authority was given to those who were descendants of Aaron from the tribe of Levi. God specifically set the tribe of Levi apart from the other eleven tribes of Israel for the sole purpose of teaching the law and performing the ritual sacrifices in the temple. Jesus and John were not descendants of Aaron in the tribe of Levi, but were both descendants of David in the line of Judah.
The religious leaders didn’t challenge John, who was heralding the coming of the long-awaited Messiah, because he didn’t bring his message into the Temple. Instead, he lived in the wilderness, preaching, and teaching outside of the city. Still, Jesus’ question puts the religious leaders in a bind. So, they do the next best thing, they say rather boldly, “We do not know.” This is probably the most honest statement any of them had ever made to Jesus.
In that single moment, Jesus accomplished two things. First, he challenged the authority of the religious leaders who taught the law but did not live it; and second, Jesus asked his followers to think more deeply about how they experienced their relationship with God.
We can ask or ourselves, “Are we willing to admit we just don’t know?”
Jesus tells us in this passage that we don’t have to know, but we do have to keep searching. John didn’t know who the Messiah was until Jesus showed up to be baptized. He was willing to walk in the unknown, to be drawn into the mystery of God, a God who defies religious traditionalism.
In this season of Lent, where we rethink our own relationship with God and how God works in and through us, we, too, are being invited to know the God who defies religious traditionalism. The historical faith of the Israelite people had always been steeped in mysticism, but they developed a kind of certainty about God that made them blind to the fullness of Jesus. We see the same kind of certainty blinding us today. Being able to say, “I don’t know,” is one way of setting us free from this trap. There isn’t anything about God that we can be certain of, not even God’s existence. It is our faith that calls us to make a commitment to the God of creation, the God who desires to know us and to be known by us. It is this God that we claim, but it is also this God that we can never fully comprehend or understand.
Finally, we come to believe that it is okay to say, “I don’t know,” even while stepping out on faith as if we do.