When he had come into the temple area, the chief priests and the elders of the people approached him as he was teaching and said, “By what authority are you doing these things? And who gave you this authority?”
Jesus said to them in reply, “I shall ask you one question, and if you answer it for me, then I shall tell you by what authority I do these things. Where was John’s baptism from? Was it of heavenly or of human origin?”
They discussed this among themselves and said, “If we say ‘Of heavenly origin,’ he will say to us, ‘Then why did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we fear the crowd, for they all regard John as a prophet.” So they said to Jesus in reply, “We do not know.”
He himself said to them, “Neither shall I tell you by what authority I do these things.”
This conversation between the Lord Jesus and the high priests recounted in Matthew 21:23-27 is hard to understand. Why wouldn’t the Lord give a clear answer to the high priests’ question?
When the high priests asked Christ by what authority He does “these things,” what are the things? The things they are talking about are: Christ allowing Himself to be hailed as the “Son of David” when entering Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and His driving the marketers and money-changers out of the Temple area.
One reason why the Lord did not give a clear answer might be that He was following His own rule. He had ordered His disciples: “Do not give what is holy to dogs. Do not cast your pearls before swine.” (Matthew 7:6) The high priests were not earnestly seeking knowledge. Christ would not speak to hard hearts about the mystery of the Incarnation.
The Lord did, however, ask a profound question. In asking about the origin of St. John’s baptism, He was effectively asking: Is it possible that the Covenant could be renewed? Might God be doing something new on earth? Might there be a new beginning for us?
Perhaps there is a simple reason why Christ did not answer the high priests’ question directly.
The answer to their question would be: “The authority by which I do these things is the authority of God. I am God.”
The Lord, however, did not reveal Himself that way. It was not the divine plan for the Son of God to reveal Himself by declaring His identity openly.
Rather, God’s full self-revelation came not with Christ’s words, but with His one decisive deed.
Christ could not answer the high priests’ question directly at the time because He knew that the answer was to come a few days later, on Good Friday.
By what authority has Christ done all that He has done? By the Authority of Love. Love to the bitter end. Infinte divine love.
The high priests asked the Lord an all-important question. The Crucifixion is His answer.