Reflection on Mark 11.27-33

The chief priests, the scribes and the elders came to him and said: ‘By what authority are you doing these things?’

The word ‘authority’ has an unbreakable link to the notions of power and influence. To have authority is to have power and influence over others. To be an authority is to wield power and influence through our level of expertise. ‘Authority’ is also associated with human vanity and pride. We like to be seen as the ones who have the ‘authority’ to do or say something. We see that ‘authority’ as giving us purpose and status that marks us out as being different or special in some way. It is these negative attributes to the notion of authority that lie at the heart of the question asked of Jesus by the chief priests, the scribes and the elders, those who saw themselves as the true holders of authority.

Very often we encounter those who invest themselves with authority. Perhaps they assume that longevity or experience give them the right to claim that authority. Perhaps they cannot let go of a level of authority they once held. Whatever the circumstances, the refusal to accept that others are called into that position of ‘authority’ can be destructive to self and to others, even whole communities! In today’s reading we witness just such a situation. For centuries the religious authorities set themselves up as the guardians, the ruling authority, in all spiritual matters. But, today, we see those religious leaders standing before the One who is truly invested with the authority of God, and we feel their pain and their uncertainty.

We often find ourselves in the position of those chief priests, elders and scribes as we have to learn to step aside in humility and allow others to assume the authority we once felt was ours. This level of humility is a core element of our Christian faith, the ability to place ourselves at the back of every queue, to put the needs of others before our own, to accept that we are servants in the household of God. All of these attitudes stand in direct opposition to our natural instinct to elbow our way to the front, to protect self at all costs, and to seek, rather than offer, service.

Jesus’ response to the challenges of the religious hierarchy is rooted in a question of faith. He does not allow himself to become engaged in an exchange of tittle-tattle, instead he speaks of baptism, that one and only gateway into the family of Christ. In response to this direct approach, the religious leaders prevaricate, they play politics with his words. In this response we see their unworthiness to exercise any level of authority in religious matters. Their time is past. There is a new authority, and that authority is God’s own Son.

Let us pray for the humility to love and serve as Jesus loved and served. Let us pray that we might resist the temptation to put ourselves ahead of others. Let us pray that we might accept that God’s wisdom will be channelled through those whom he calls into his service, and not through our arrogance, and our desire to be at the front of every queue.