I will ask you just one question, and if you give me an answer, I will tell you what right I have to do these things. Where did John’s right to baptize come from: was it from God or from human beings?….Neither will I tell you, then, by what right I do these things.
Jesus makes his dramatic entrance into Jerusalem on a donkey, goes to the Temple and turns over the tables of the moneychangers, heals the blind and the crippled, defends the children, and then returns to the Temple where he teaches his unorthodox theology and interpretation of the scriptures.
The chief priests and the elders were very unhappy with him. It says they came to him and asked, “What right do you have to do these things? Who gave you such right?” Jesus responds with this: “I will ask you just one question, and if you give me an answer, I will tell you what right I have to do these things. Where did John’s right to baptize come from: was it from God or from human beings?”
Jesus asks the religious authorities a trick question and they don’t know how to respond. The problem was that there were many followers of John the Baptist among the hundreds of thousands of religious pilgrims who were in Jerusalem for Passover, and their memory of his brutal execution by the Jewish king was still a fresh wound. The mere mention of his name probably stirred up a lot of anger. So when Jesus mentions John the Baptist, it’s a delicate situation because the last thing the religious authorities wanted to do was start a riot that would certainly cause casualties and rouse up the Roman army. The last thing they wanted during Passover was trouble, and Jesus knew it.
The Bible says they started to argue among themselves – “What shall we say? If we answer, ‘From God,’ he will say to us, ‘Why, then, did you not believe John?’ But if we say, ‘From human beings,’ we are afraid of what the people might do, because they are all convinced that John was a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We don’t know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you, then, by what right I do these things.”
It was a very clever reply, but then Jesus was a master at verbal sparring. He had long been honing his debating skills with the Pharisees out in the countryside, and he was more than up to the challenge of a little repartee with the religious authorities in Jerusalem.
The first thing that came to my mind when I read this was the 1988 Vice Presidential debate where Lloyd Bentsen was debating Dan Quayle. At one point Senator Quayle was asked to defend his vice-presidential credentials, and he replied that he had as much experience in Congress as Jack Kennedy did when he ran for president. Bentsen responded with one of the all-time great zingers: “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”
According to Wikipedia, “since then, the words ‘You’re no Jack Kennedy,’ or some variation on Bentsen’s remark, have become a part of the political lexicon as a way to deflate politicians or other individuals perceived as thinking too highly of themselves.”
I also remember hearing about an incident with Matahma Gandhi, the great Hindu political activist who led a campaign of nonviolent civil disobedience that eventually secured India’s independence from Britain. British rule in India is claimed by some to be responsible for famines that resulted in the deaths of millions of Indians, and Gandhi himself was imprisoned by authorities on many occasions for the sake of others. When visiting England in 1931 he was swarmed by reporters, one of whom asked him, “What do you think of Western civilization?” Gandhi replied, “I think it would be a good idea.” Snap.
Here are some other great one-liners:
- If life were fair, Elvis would be alive and his impersonators would be dead (Johnny Carson).
- If you can’t be a good example, you’ll just have to be a horrible warning (Catherine the Great).
- If you want anything said, ask a man. If you want anything done, ask a woman (Margaret Thatcher).
- I’m not offended by dumb blonde jokes because I’m not dumb, and also I’m not blonde (Dolly Parton).
Usually a good retort, a really good zinger, is something that is said in response to a stupid question or remark. That is certainly the case with today’s scripture. The religious leaders ask Jesus who gives him the right to do what he does. It’s a stupid question. Who gives any of us the right to do anything that we do? We do what we do because we are who we are. We do what we do because we have to be true to ourselves. We do what we do because we perceive that what we are doing is the best course of action.
What I want to know is who gave those religious authorities the right to question Jesus about what he was doing? What was wrong with coming into Jerusalem on a donkey? Or calling attention to the inappropriate commerce going on in the Temple? Or healing people? Or defending little children? Or interpreting the scriptures? Who gives anyone the right to ask people to defend their actions when what they are doing isn’t hurting anyone?
But Jesus comes up with a much better retort to the chief priests’ stupid question, It’s a brilliant comeback. He doesn’t defend himself, he instead brings up the ministry (and thus the martyrdom) of his friend John the Baptist. He replies with an innuendo about how the Jewish religious leaders’ failure to embrace John as a true prophet and protect him from their crazy king. Ultimately Jesus defends himself well, because he’s clever and witty and articulate and wise. He’s not some passive, aloof, detached, other-worldly being who goes around patting everyone on the head while he spews out platitudes with an angelic smile on his face. In this scriptures the powerful religious leaders are left standing there looking like fools because when it comes to verbal sparring, Jesus is the master. He never, ever loses an argument, and he always gets the last word. Snap.
What does this scripture say to you?