Matthew 21:23-27

THE EXPEDIENT IGNORANCE

Matt. 21:23-27

When Jesus had come into the Temple precincts, the chief priests and elders of the people came to him as he was teaching and said, “By what authority do you do these things? And who gave you this authority?” Jesus answered them, “I will ask you one question, and if you give me an answer to it, I too will tell you by what authority I do these things. Whence was the baptism of John? Was it from heaven? Or, was it from men?” They debated within themselves. “If,” they said, “we say `From heaven,’ he will say to us, `Why then did you not believe in him?’ But, if we say, `From men,’ we fear the crowd, for all regard John as a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” So he too said to them, “Neither do I tell you by what authority I do these things.”

When we think of the extraordinary things Jesus had been doing, we cannot be surprised that the Jewish authorities asked him what right he had to do them. At the moment Jesus was not prepared to give them the direct answer that his authority came from the fact that he was the Son of God. To do so would have been to precipitate the end. There were actions still to be done and teaching still to be given. It sometimes takes more courage to bide one’s time and to await the necessary moment, than it does to throw oneself on the enemy and invite the end. For Jesus everything had to be done in God’s time; and the time for the final crisis had not yet come.

So he countered the question of the Jewish authorities with a question of his own, one which placed them in a dilemma. He asked them whether John’s ministry came from heaven or from men, whether it was divine or merely human in its origin. Were those who went out to be baptized at the Jordan responding to a merely human impulse or were they in fact answering a divine challenge? The dilemma of the Jewish authorities was this. If they said that the ministry of John was from God, then they had no alternative to admitting that Jesus was the Messiah, for John had borne definite and unmistakable witness to that fact. On the other hand, if they denied that John’s ministry came from God, then they would have to bear the anger of the people, who were convinced that he was the messenger of God.

For a moment the Jewish chief priests and elders were silent. Then they gave the lamest of all lame answers. They said, “We do not know.” If ever men stood self-condemned, they did. They ought to have known; it was part of the duty of the Sanhedrin, of which they were members, to distinguish between true and false prophets; and they were saying that they were unable to make that distinction. Their dilemma drove them into a shameful self-humiliation.

There is a grim warning here. There is such a thing as the deliberately assumed ignorance of cowardice. If a man consults expediency rather than principle, his first question will be, not, “What is the truth?” but, “What is it safe to say?” Again and again his worship of expediency will drive him to a cowardly silence. He will lamely say, “I do not know the answer,” when he well knows the answer, but is afraid to give it. The true question is not: “What is it safe to say?” but, “What is it right to say?”

The deliberately assumed ignorance of fear, the cowardly silence of expediency are shameful things. If a man knows the truth, he is under obligation to tell it, though the heavens should fall.

Back to: THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW (Chapters 11-28)

Back to: Barclay’s Commentary

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