One day, as Yeshua was teaching the people at the Temple, making known the Good News, the head priests and the Torah-teachers, along with the elders, came up to him 2 and said, “Tell us, what authority do you have that permits you to do these things? Who gave you this authority?” 3 He answered, “I too will ask you a question. Tell me, 4 the immersion of Yochanan — was it from Heaven or from a human source?” 5 They discussed it among themselves, saying, “If we say, ‘From Heaven,’ he will say, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ 6 But if we say, ‘From a human source,’ all the people will stone us, because they’re convinced that Yochanan was a prophet.” 7 So they answered, “We don’t know where it came from.” 8 Yeshua said to them, “Then I won’t tell you by what authority I do these things.”i
Luke depicts Jesus as the Son of God / peaceful Messiah exercising a prophetic ministry amongst his people. Here he is shown in the place that is truly his right place, the Temple that is made holy by God’s presence. In fact that invisible presence is the unspoken issue in this incident.
When Jesus is challenged by the religious leaders, he refuses to name God as if He could be claimed as the justification for his ministry. This reminds the reader that unlike the Old Testament prophets, Jesus never prefaces his teachings with “Thus says the Lord,” as they did, but takes responsibilty for his own words. Of course he trusts in God as his Abba, his dear father, and of course he speaks out of that relationship, but he will not use the name of God to answer people who have no inkling of God’s majesty.
Instead he asks a question about the authority of Yoachanan’s immersion, and by implication his prophetic ministry. Their sharp minds see this only as a clever reply, for if they admit that Yochanan was inspired by God, Jesus will make public reference to their refusal to believe him; and if they deny him that inspiration the crowd who reverenced Yochanan will turn on them. Indeed it is a clever reply, which forces them to say lamely that they don’t know where Yochanan’s authority came from. But it’s far more than merely clever, for it brings the religious leaders and the crowd up against the One whom Jesus too has refused to name, the One who is far more than the answer to a question or the justification for a religious cult. The unspoken, holy name of God is made to hover over this debate, offering wisdom to those who will open themselves to it, and judgement upon those who won’t.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian killed by the Nazis, wrote of how he often preferred the company of worldly people to that of pious believers who offended him with their presumptuous talk of God. He said that he drew inspiration from the secret discipline of Jesus, who never prayed in public and instructed his disciples to speak with God only in the secret place.
Here in this incident Luke reveals Jesus’ care for the holiness of God alongside his opponents’ corrupt carelessness. The one who truly represents God is the one who refuses to bandy about his name. The mention of Yochanan at this point in the story reminds the reader that Jesus is likely to share his fate.