3rd Week of Advent (M)/St Lucy
Fr. Philip Neri Powell
Ss. Domenico e Sisto, Roma
The chief priests and the elders are growing more and more frustrated with Jesus. At every turn, he manages to spoil their efforts to discredit him. He beats them at their legal game. He outperforms them at their religious game. He's certainly more politically popular among the common people. All of these defeats at the hands of a disreputable preacher from a backwater town are really starting to sting! Finding him teaching to a large crowd in the temple area, the priests and elders decide to go for the gold medal and ask a very basic question, a question that should either establish Jesus' credentials or expose him as a fraud: “By what authority are you doing these things? And who gave you this authority?” You can almost hear the frustration in these questions. What exactly are these men after? What answers are they hoping for? Of course, Jesus is too smart by half to answer them directly. He already knows that the question is a trap, so he answers with his own question, “Was John's baptism of heavenly or human origin?” Now they are stuck! If they say that John's baptism was heavenly in origin, then his preaching about Jesus is true. If they say that he baptism was human in origin, then these men face an angry mob of John's supporters. Given these options, the priests and elders say, “We don't know.” Since they don't know the answer or won't give an answer, Jesus refuses to address their question about his authority to teach and perform miracles. In other words, he refuses to reveal himself as the Word made flesh, the Word authored by the Father and sent with His authority to preach the Good News.
Now, no doubt the priests and elders are just a little curious about this reckless prophet who's going around upsetting the rules of their playground. They are certainly frustrated by their failed attempts to expose Jesus as a fraud. But it is telling that they willing to confront him directly about the origins of his authority. They risk an outright public declaration from Jesus that he is the long-promised Messiah. Once spoken, such a claim is explosive; it cannot be unspoken. Once revealed—true or false—the claim will have to be addressed. The religious and political rulers will either have to accept Jesus' authority and see their world turned upside-down, or reject his authority and risk a violent reaction from the mobs that follow this preacher around. They opt for the predictable politicians' response: do nothing and hope to keep their jobs and their lives. It should go without saying that this sort of response is not what God demands of us. Hedging our bets for and against the Christ is no hedge at all. We either accept his authority, or we reject it. We follow, or we walk away.
Half-measures, hedged bets, lukewarm hearts will not get us any closer to Christ. In fact, standing on the sidelines of the Way, watching from a safe distance, will get us nothing more than left behind. If the priests and elders were to ask you, “By what authority does Jesus do these things? And who gave him this authority?”—how would you answer? Are you ready to die for that answer? Because regardless of how you answer, you will be called upon to defend yourself. . .to death or all the way to eternal life.
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