“You can’t handle the truth!” We all know that line don’t we, from A Few Good Men? Tom Cruise’s character, Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee is hammering away at Colonel Jessup, played by Jack Nicholson. Kaffee says “I want the truth,” to which Colonel Jessup replies bristling, “You can’t handle the truth!” Colonel Jessup believed that the truth of what it took to protect our nation was more than Lieutenant Kaffee was prepared to handle. It reminds me of a time in the Gospels when the religious leaders thought they wanted the truth, but in reality they were unprepared to handle it.
And when he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came up to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Jesus answered them, “I also will ask you one question, and if you tell me the answer, then I also will tell you by what authority I do these things. The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?” And they discussed it among themselves, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘From man,’ we are afraid of the crowd, for they all hold that John was a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things. (Matt 21:23-27 ESV)
We find here in this encounter between Jesus and the chief priests and elders a moment like that in A Few Good Men. Unlike Colonel Jessup, Jesus isn’t in the hot seat because he ordered a code red, but because he is doing these things that are imbued with a lot of symbolic meaning. He’s ridden triumphantly into Jerusalem on a donkey. He’s cleansed the temple. Who does this Jesus of Nazareth think he is? They themselves, the chief priests and elders, had not given Jesus any authority. So where does his authority come from? The next time Jesus meets with the chief priests and elders, it will be when he is brought before their council and judged. In this moment though, Jesus judges them.
Jesus responds to their two questions, which were really the same question, with two questions of his own that are also really one question. He takes their questions about him, and redirects them to address John the Baptist. Why does he do this? Because there is a link between the ministry of John the Baptist and that of Jesus. It would be impossible to reject the part of God’s story that was John the Baptist, without also rejecting Jesus. After all, it was John the Baptist who had baptized Jesus, and it was John the Baptist who had testified that Jesus was the Messiah. If you reject John the Baptist, then you also reject his testimony concerning Jesus, but if you accept John the Baptist, then you have to take seriously his testimony that Jesus is the Messiah. The real beauty of the question is not only that it reveals the unbreakable link between the ministry of Jesus and John the Baptist, but that it also exposes their unpreparedness—or we might even say unwillingness—to be confronted with the truth of who Jesus is.
Why are they unprepared, or unwilling? It boils down to the simple fact that they don’t want to be unpopular, and they don’t want to lose power! If they tell the truth about what they think of John the Baptist, the crowds will turn on them and they will become unpopular. If they lie, then they have to face the tough questions about why they didn’t accept him. They will basically be ceding power to Jesus. They’ve worked themselves into quite a pickle, and if we didn’t continually see the religious establishment acting so high and mighty in the Gospels, we might even feel sorry for them.
But what if we … are them? Their situation seems all too familiar, doesn’t it? Perhaps that’s because there have been times when we couldn’t handle the truth. We would never deny Jesus! But maybe we pull our punches when it comes to proclaiming the kingdom. Maybe we are tempted to soften the rhetoric a bit when it comes to the claims that Jesus makes upon our life because, you know, people don’t come to church to be lectured. If we don’t have power or influence, how will we get things done for God? If we aren’t popular, who is going to want to come to the churches we serve?
We have to want the truth before we can proclaim the truth. We have to want the truth regardless of what it costs us, regardless of what we might have to sacrifice, regardless of how it is going to change our life. Until we reach that point we will remain in a place where we can’t handle the truth. While we might have influence, and we might be popular, we will be incapable of receiving any answers from Jesus.
Jesus was so different from the world that they wondered by what authority he was doing all of these things. It was the fact that Jesus stood out that led the chief priests and the elders to ask the questions. What if there are people out there who really are capable to handling the truth? What if there are people who are ready to sacrifice power and popularity, if they could only find something greater than themselves? Is our behavior as Christ-followers so different, so distinct, that those people might ask the question, “By what authority are you doing these things?”