When Silence is a Lie (Luke 20)

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The 20th chapter of Luke starts with an encounter of heightened intensity. It’s one of those Jesus v Religious Authorities  face-offs, but this time it finishes in silence. It’s not the silence of discomfiture but -more likely- of calculated withdrawal in the refusal to speak.

As Yevtushenko said: “When truth is replaced by silence, the silence is a lie.”

One day as Jesus was teaching the people in the temple courts and proclaiming the good news, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, together with the elders, came up to him. 

It’s easy to miss the moment of intimidation. It’s there in the phrase “came up to him” which sounds harmless enough. The Greek word, however, is epestesan. The verb means “to attack, to come upon, to pounce on.”  It’s depicts a gang of bullies coming upon an unsuspecting victim.  They can’ can barely contain their outrage at his teaching.  And they do it by forming a question that masks their real hostility in a sort of pseudo-theological debate.  But they are coming after him with a vengeance.

And who are “they”? Well, that’s an interesting point, and very germane to the discussion here. It was a hodgepodge of differing theological perspectives united only in their opposition to Jesus.

That is to say,  it is “the chief priests and the teachers of the law, together with the elders.” The chief priests would encompass the upper temple echelons immediately under the High Priest himself, and a rank from which high priests were selected, who had responsibility to oversee religious affairs in the capital.  Then there would be ranking orders of priests, priests who were over the priests who were doing their two-week stint there per year.  There were all kinds of authorities and dignitaries, collectively represented in phtase “chief priests.”

Then the scribes or “teachers of the law” represent the theologians.  Many -but not all- of them were Pharisees.  And the “elders” would be the remaining ones, including some Sadducees, probably some from the Herodians, some from the Pharisees, who would represent the Sanhedrin, the group of seventy who comprised the reigning group over the affairs of religion.

So a delegation comes to him of this collective body.  But it is a collective group with widely divergent views on resurrection, Scripture, politics -just about everything. They had only one thing in common: an impacable resistance to Jesus. The Religious Authorities of the Day, you might say,  found themelves unified on this solitary point.  They couldn’t agree on much, but they could agree on this: “We want Jesus dead.”

And, in an irony that is almost breathaking, they ask a question about the origin of Jesus’ authority.

Tell us by what authority you are doing these things,’ they said. ‘Who gave you this authority?’

What has prompted them to ask this question is Jesus’ outrageous behaviour. How dare you do“these things?”  Who gave you the right to be so high and mighty when that’s our job?  “These things” means the triumphal entry, and the implicit Messianic message that it contained, and the intolerable effrontery of ordering traders from the Temple courts. By what authority do you dare take so much upon yourself?

Jesus responds with a question, the classic rabbinic teaching style. But he is not evading the answer, He’s unmasking their hypocrisy:

He replied, ‘I will also ask you a question. Tell me: John’s baptism – was it from heaven, or of human origin?’

They discussed it among themselves and said, ‘If we say, “From heaven,” he will ask, “Why didn’t you believe him?” But if we say, “Of human origin,” all the people will stone us, because they are persuaded that John was a prophet.’

So they answered, ‘We don’t know where it was from.’

Jesus said, ‘Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.’ 

Their silence masks the lie.  But he had backed them into a tricky spot. It is quite possible that many of those represented in the delegation had heard John preach and perhaps responded. But officially it was beneath the dignity of their authority to be baptised. It would be like your bishop making an appeal for salvation and then joining the queue hiumself.  And anyway, they considered themselves above baptism, which traditionally was given to Gentiles converting to the Jewish faith. These men had their earthly power and authority already wrapped up. They did not consider they had any reason for personal repentance of sin. “ I thank you Lord, that I am not as other men…”

But they had no doubt of John’s popular reputation as a prophet. He had challenged Herod himself and paid the price!

Therefore, the chief priests, scribes and elders claimed not to know the source of John the Baptist’s authority. They took refuge in silence. So Jesus ends this encounter with a shrugged retort: OK, my own silence will parallel yours.

This whole passage is a contrast of authority that is authentic and God-given and authority that is imagined, human and secular.

Here’s Matthew Henry’s commentary, written in a 17th Century England which just a few years before had been torn apart on this very issue of human and divine authority:

“It is not strange if those that are governed by reputation and secular interest imprison the plainest truths, and smother and stifle the strongest convictions, as these priests and scribes did, who, to save their credit, would not own that John’s baptism was from heaven, and had no other reason why they did not say it was of men but because they feared the people. What good can be expected from men of such a spirit?  Those that bury the knowledge they have are justly denied further knowledge. It was just with Christ to refuse to give an account of his authority to them that knew the baptism of John to be from heaven and would not believe in him, nor own their knowledge.”


It’s a principle. For it seems -terrible thought- that there comes a time when God says, “I have no more to say to you.”

Look at Jeremiah 11 7,11: “For I solemnly warned your fathers in the day that I brought them up from the land of Egypt, even to this day, warning persistently saying, ‘Listen to My voice.’  …Therefore, thus says the Lord, ‘I’m bringing disaster on them which they will not be able to escape; and though they will cry to Me, yet I will not listen to them.’

Let’s pray:

Today is still a day of grace. God is listening yet, if we will but break the silence and admit what we know to be true. Don’t let the crowd sway you, nor the insufferable drag of your own reputation.

“Here’s what I want you to do: Find a quiet, secluded place so you won’t be tempted to role-play before God. Just be there as simply and honestly as you can manage. The focus will shift from you to God, and you will begin to sense his grace.” (Matthew 6 MSG)

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