Matthew 21:23-27 has held my attention this last week. It is a fascinating set of verses. The recorded dialogue is between Jesus and the chief priests. The venue is the temple courts. It is Passion Week (some commentators suggest it is Tuesday of the Passion Week). Jesus is asked a nested question and he replies to the question with a nested question of his own. Jesus sets terms in that he offers a reply to the question put to him if the chief priests can first answer his question.
The question put to Jesus follows form of questions put to him earlier in his ministry. It is a question that seeks to uncover the authority by which Jesus acts:
“By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you this authority?”
The priests are quite possibly referring to the action of Jesus when he entered Jerusalem. The chief priests were probably quite disturbed by the over-turning of the tables in the temple (Matthew 21:12).
Jesus answers with a challenge and a question:
"Jesus replied, “I will also ask you one question. If you answer me, I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things.John’s baptism—where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or of human origin?"
The challenge is in the form of drawing the priests to answer a question first.
After some deliberation the priests answer "We don’t know” (verse 27) and Jesus concludes with “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things" (verse 27).
Now, it is a fascinating dialogue for a number of reasons. Firstly, Jesus sees that the chief priests hold Jesus in some air of authority in that Jesus is emboldened to set the challenge. Secondly, the priests persist in wanting the answer to their question by accepting the challenge. Thirdly, the chief priests, as late as the Passion Week, seem not to have assessed Jesus' fulfilment of prophetic statements (the lame will walk, the blind will see etc).
A fourth reasons fascinates me the most. The fascination derives from a simple aspect of the questions. It is mathematical. While Jesus asks a closed binary question (one which has two mutually exclusive answers), the chief priests seemingly ask an open ended question (one which has many possible answers). So, the answer to the question Jesus asks is a) or b) (heaven or man) whereas the possible answers to the chief priests questions seem to be p), q). r), s) ...... (Jesus for instance could answer God or Moses or Abraham or Zeus or Thor). Jesus is asked a wide question, Jesus asks a narrow question. Jesus reduces the playing field. Or, is it that simple? This is where it becomes really fascinating. While the nested question asked by the chief priests appears to be open ended. It is in fact a closed binary question. To understand this you need to understand the chief priests motives. Jesus himself understood their motive. The chief priests wanted to have Jesus state that he was authorised by God - in which case they would then accuse him of blasphemy, or to have Jesus state that his authority came from a non-God source in which case they would dismiss him. Their question actually only has two answers (God or someone other than God (for instance: Moses, Abraham, Zeus or Thor)), God or not God. Jesus in his challenge and question is cleverly illustrating back to the chief priests the nature of their question - and the nature of their hearts.