From Matthew’s Gospel:
When Jesus entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven’, he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin’, we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.”
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Matthew 21:23-27 – July 3, 2012)
Don’t the words of the priests and elders ring false? “We don’t know.” Matthew doesn’t tell us that they did know, but I think they did, or at least had a pretty good idea. I think they knew (or had a pretty good idea) that John was indeed a prophet, that his message of baptism and repentance was “from heaven” as Jesus puts it here. ~ I don’t think there’s anything wrong with answering “I don’t know” when that is, in fact, the case. I once had a parishioner who (it seemed to me) was constantly asking, “What will happen when we die?” My answer was always, “I don’t know, Martha. I haven’t been there yet. But here’s what our faith teaches . . . .” If the priests and elders truly didn’t know, they could at least have answered in this way: “We don’t know, but this is what we think . . . .” But they didn’t even do that. ~ Jesus constantly calls the religious authorities out for hypocrisy. He plays no favorites, either. Pharisees and Sadducees, priests and scribes, elders and rabbis, Jewish authorities of every sort feel the sting of his condemnation. A lot of books and blogs on the practice of ministry say, “It’s OK to say, ‘I don’t know’.” And it is when that is truly the case; in fact, if you don’t know, it’s better to say so than rely on some hackneyed-and-probably-inappropriate cliche or to make up some BS on the spot. But Jesus here is suggesting that it’s not OK to say “I don’t know” when you do know, or you have a pretty good idea; in that case, it’s rank hypocrisy.
Fr. Funston is rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.