PassageIn this passage Jesus and his disciples return once again to the temple, where it turns out that the religious leaders have had enough: They demand to know by whose authority Jesus is doing and saying the things he’s doing and saying. But rather than answering directly Jesus decides to give them a test: if they can tell him whether the baptism of John the Baptist was from heaven or from man—in other words whether it was ordained by God—then he’ll tell them under whose authority he is acting.
The religious leaders discuss it amongst themselves, and have a bit of a dilemma: they can’t say the baptism came from God, or Jesus’ response will be that they should therefore have believed John, but they are afraid to say that the baptism only came from man because the Jewish people believe that John really was a prophet, and the religious leaders are afraid of the people’s response. So they wimp out and tell Jesus that they don’t know the answer, and so he refuses to tell them by what authority he does the things he does.
ThoughtsThere is a bit more than just clever word games going on in this section. What Jesus is really pointing out—to the people more than to the religious leaders, I think—is that the religious leaders have given up their moral authority. They clearly believe that John the Baptist was a false prophet, but if they, as religious leaders, truly believe that, then they should stand up and say so. For the sake of their own consciences, as well as for the sake of the people! If John was a false prophet then it would be up to the religious leaders to protect the people from his false teachings.
So one of two things is going on here: either the religious leaders aren’t able to discern whether John was a true or false prophet, or they have made a determination but are unwilling to stand up and say so. Either way, they are not suited to be religious leaders of the people of Israel.