The Gospel reading for Monday of the third week of Advent (Matt 21:23-27) offers a familiar story of Jesus in conflict with the religious leaders of Israel, but it offers an important opportunity to reflect on the relationship between authority and truth, a very relevant theme for today.
Jesus has finally arrived in Jerusalem and is causing trouble from day one. He has challenged the authority of the priests, whose duty it is to mind God’s house. In cleansing the temple of the people doing business there, Our Lord shows these authorities up as failing in their duty.
When they challenge him as to his right to do such a thing, he turns the tables on them with a clever question concerning the origins of the authority claimed by John the Baptist. Now, the chief priests and elders clearly do not hold that John was a prophet from God, and it follows that they equally refuse to see divine authority exercised by Jesus when John points to him as the Lamb of God.
But they are reluctant to insult the memory of John because it may antagonise the ordinary people, who revered the Baptist as another Elijah. So, they protect themselves in saying, rather lamely, “We don’t know!”
This response, claiming ignorance, is highlighted by William Barclay in his commentary on Matthew’s Gospel. He calls this ploy a “cowardly ignorance,” the ignorance of those who ask themselves the question, not what it is right to answer but what is expedient or safe to answer. They fear to tell what they hold to be the truth (even though it is in fact false).
This fear of the truth coming out is a perennial feature of human nature, seen especially in the tendency of individuals, and especially groups, to attempt to cover up errors, even crimes, so as to protect their image or reputation. The obvious example is from our own Church when child abuse was covered up by many church leaders in an effort to avoid scandal and damage to the institution’s image as “holy.”
But the trend can be found in many walks of life, in government, business and the professions. And this cowardly refusal to speak the truth undermines the authority of those who give in to this temptation, as in the case of the priests and elders attacking Jesus. It is surely a case for them of taking the plank out of their own eye first!
It is somewhat ironic, however, to remind ourselves that Jesus did not always proclaim the truth about his authority either! Is he not guilty too of being untruthful in hiding his wisdom in parables and avoiding the question in this case?
But the case of Jesus is quite different. He knows that the truthful person must hold the truth in such respect that it has to be revealed in a prudent and wise way, according to the circumstances of life. A truthful person does not reveal legitimate secrets of others in line with the right to confidentiality, within just limits. The doctor does not tell a terminally ill patient the truth of their diagnosis in an offhand or brutal manner.
Jesus said that we must not throw our pearls before swine; in other words, people may not be ready to accept the truth. It makes no sense, for instance, to share inappropriate information on sexuality with very young children, when they are unable to grasp matters that make sense to adults.
The command to tell the truth always is not a black and white matter in every case. The real issue is how to be a truthful person, how to develop an honest character, so as to speak the truth wisely, at the right time, to the right people, bravely, not rashly or foolishly.
And Jesus, who is the way, the TRUTH, and the life, is the one whose authority is absolute because he is the essence of truthfulness, the one who always does the truth in love.