The chief priests and elders of the people (the religious authorities of their day) refuse to acknowledge the divine authority of John the Baptist because doing so would morally obligate them to follow John’s teaching. They hide this refusal behind a specious and cynical plea of ignorance.
In the first reading from Numbers 24, we hear an oracle uttered by a man named Balaam who essentially foretells the coming of the Messiah, but Balaam's “back-story”also tells us something about authority and God.
A professional soothsayer, Balaam had been bribed by a king to invoke curses upon the people of Israel, but then, in one of the strangest miracles of the Old Testament, he is rebuked by a talking donkey and then by the angel of the Lord. These events eventually lead him to pronouncing the utterances we hear in today’s reading.
Balaam knew what the will of God was, but he had subordinated it to the power of the king and to the lure of material wealth.
We today are often tempted to subordinate the authority of God to the lure of material wealth and to various forms of political conformity. Indeed, some people today reject any authority except their own whim.
Some do this without even a pretense of rationalization or excuse. Others, like the chief priests and the elders in today’s Gospel, develop rationalizations that are sometimes quite complex and sophisticated.
No rationalization or excuse, however, can diminish the authority of God or our obligation to seek and to defer to that authority.
A common rationalization throughout history (and especially so today) is to use the imperfections of religious leaders as a reason to follow one’s authority rather than the authority of God.
Certainly the religious leaders at the time of Christ left much to be desired. Our Lord constantly denounced them for all sorts of evil and hypocrisy, but he was also careful to distinguish between their personal failings and the role God had given them.
The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat;
so practice and observe whatever they tell you,
but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice.
Obviously, it is best to teach by example and by word. Also, although none of us are perfect in this world, the personal or professional failings of God’s ministers can be especially grievous and must be dealt with appropriately (may God have mercy on them and all of us), but these failings must never be allowed to be used as an excuse to diminish the authority of God or to be selective about God’s truth.
We must respect the authority of God: we must discern and follow his truth, even if we happen to hear it from someone who is like a donkey.