Mark 11:27–33 NRSV
Again they came to Jerusalem. As he was walking in the temple, the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders came to him and said, “By what authority are you doing these things? Who gave you this authority to do them?” Jesus said to them, “I will ask you one question; answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin? Answer me.” They argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But shall we say, ‘Of human origin’?”’they were afraid of the crowd, for all regarded John as truly a prophet. 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.”
Ivan Illich was a twentieth-century Roman Catholic priest and philosopher from Austria. He was once asked what is the most revolutionary way to change society. Is it violent revolution or is it gradual reform? He gave a careful answer. “Neither . . . If you want to change a society, then you must tell an alternative story.”
Today’s text strikes this chord in a most dissonant fashion. Today we see the classic confrontation of the ages: the authorities who have power over the people versus the ones whose authority is recognized by the people. It usually sets up as the reformers versus the revolutionaries.
It’s easy to vilify the Sanhedrin, but unfair. Try to see it through their lens. They clearly have an agenda for reform. Their reverence for the Word of God was second to none. They wanted to spread scriptural holiness across the land. They lived for the glory of God to be spread across the earth and all of their reforms were to this end.
All of this evokes images of the 2016 election cycle in America and the Republican debates. On the stage we saw nine reformers and one would-be revolutionary. It is why some people love Donald Trump. They are sick to death of the system and they don’t really believe it can be reformed. They want a kind of revolution and Trump represents that to them. The leadership of the Republican party plays something of the role of the Sanhedrin here. They want to know where Trump gets his legitimate authority. Of course, Trump’s ugly threat is to take his revolution to an Independent party and go to it from there. This could be pushed with all sorts of interesting implications and insights. However, we will not find any government with the capacity to tell the alternative story we are looking for short of the now-and-yet-coming kingdom of God. Didn’t Isaiah say something like, “and the government will be upon his shoulders”?
John the Baptist was something of a reformer-revolutionary, yet he knew he was not the one to lead the revolution. He prophesied of the Coming One. The baptism the Messiah would bring would be of a different order than John’s water baptism. It would bear the character of fire. As a consequence, Jesus could not help but be understood by the people as the leader of a revolution who would restore the kingdom to Israel. John’s dismayed message to Jesus from prison, “Are you the one? Or should we expect another?” signifies this situation. Right up to the very end the people expected to see Jesus take back the nation from Rome and institute the kingdom of God on earth. This evoked great fear in the hearts of the reformers (i.e., the Sanhedrin). Not only would this independent movement erode their power base, it would likely lead to the end of the nation.
Here’s what no one saw coming, despite Jesus’ explicit and clear indications. Jesus was not bringing a reform of the present system, nor was he bringing a revolutionary overthrow of the religious establishment and the Roman interlopers. Jesus told an alternative story. Jesus, through his words, deeds, life, and coming death was telling the story not of reform or revolution, but resurrection.
I acknowledge this is a bit of a ponderous thinker entry, but it bears immense practical significance for the ways we live out our lives in the midst of the crumbling institutions all around us—from marriage to schools to the workplace to the government and the economy. Reform is good but will never get the job done. Revolution is tempting but never ultimately works, for it merely replaces one power stronghold with another equally corrupt one.
In the face of these options we are called to be persons and collectively a people of the cross—which is to say persons and a people who live out the powerful way of death and resurrection in the everyday world—people who have died to the agenda of sin and death and who are gloriously alive to the agenda of resurrection and life. To the present generations of the people of God, this is our shift, our time, and our passing opportunity to tell the alternative story of the cross in the most compelling and beautiful and demonstrably powerful way possible. Amen? Amen!
Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me.
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