Authority: The Good, The Bad, And The Abused
Deuteronomy 18:15-20; Psalm 111; 1 Cor. 8:1-13; Mark 1:21-28
Sometimes in scripture it’s hard to draw parallels with our current time and place. For instance, our lesson from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians discussing meat sacrificed to idols is just such a time. We don’t head off to the grocery store thinking, “I wonder from which temple and which god was my roast beef a sacrifice.” It’s just not part of our reality; however, it was a huge problem in Paul’s day and therefore he addressed the problem in a straightforward and honest manner. However, there are circumstances within scripture that are timeless and the issue of authority is just such an issue.
In our Old Testament lesson Moses, who had been given authority over the Israelites from God, is promised that in the future God would send a prophet to have authority over the people. In the midst of God’s promise to bring forth a prophet like Moses we have to look at how Moses exercised authority. First, Moses was humble. From the beginning when God calls Moses at the burning bush Moses did not want the job. Moses felt inadequate and ill equipped to be a leader. Because Moses understood his shortcomings he relied on God to be his leader and guide. Moses grasped that God possessed the ultimate authority and Moses was merely the means through which God led his people to freedom. Moses understood what it required to be a true leader and true spokesperson for God, and that was a willingness to honestly speak God’s word and seek God’s will. At no time did Moses insert his own will or own demands into his relationship with God or the people he led. Granted, there were times that Moses argued with God like at the burning bush when he argued that he wasn’t qualified to lead God’s people out of Egypt or, during the incident on Mt. Sinai when Aaron made the golden calf. However, at no point to Moses speak a false word concerning God. Moses always sought God’s word and will and delivered an honest message.
Moses, and the Hebrews, were worried that after Moses’ death there would be a void of leadership and the people would be led astray. God promises that God will provide a prophet like Moses. As Christians we understand that prophet to be Jesus, but for the Hebrews of Moses it meant that God would raise up his own leader. As with any vacuum of leadership God understood that false prophets with false self-serving messages would rise up in these vacuums and lead people astray. Therefore, God adds on the bit about prophets speaking false words in God’s name and leading people astray shall die. The question is how do we know who is a true prophet and who is a false prophet? The answer to that question should be simple. It should be the one who speaks with biblical knowledge. There is a problem with this logic and that is that even the devil knows scripture. The real test is does the prophet’s message reveal the God found in scripture or does the message reveal the message you want to hear?
In the gospel today the issue of authority is raised again when Jesus heals the demoniac in the Synagogue in Capernaum. First, Jesus is teaching in the synagogue and the people are astounded at his teaching for he teaches as one with authority unlike the scribes. The deal is the scribes have authority. They had gone through years of education and training to become scribes. Their role in the synagogue was much like the role a rabbi or a pastor has today. It was the difference is in how they exercised their authority. The scribes main purpose was to maintain the status quo and not rock the boat. The idea was to keep order and stick to the basics. It’s not as if the scribes are teaching contrary to God’s will they just don’t preach God’s will. Jesus, on the other hand, preaches about the kingdom of God, and how God will lift up the lowly and make low the haughty. Granted, we don’t know specifically what he was preaching on that particular Sabbath day, but we know what he consistently preach at other times and I would wager on that day he preached the same message. Jesus’ message rang true to the people and his message was received as good news.
The healing of the demoniac is not merely an exclamation point on Jesus’ authority, but an example of how authority is to be exercised. Normally, the leader of the synagogue would have had a mad man escorted out of the building. The idea being that the synagogue on the Sabbath was neither the time nor the place to deal with such problems. Jesus, on the other hand, cures the man by banishing the demon. Jesus exercises his authority in a way that puts evil in its place and restores the man’s dignity and humanity. It is with compassion that Jesus exercises his authority and it is what separates Jesus from all the other religious leaders.
Last week I pointed out that there are two kinds of repentance, the repentance that is for the forgiveness of sins and the repentance that turns towards God’s will. Authority is closely connected to the repentance that Jesus proclaimed which turns towards God. Unfortunately, authority today seems to be closely yoked to power and power has a tendency to become corrupt. All of the scandals in the news today revolve around people with a great deal of power and authority who misused their authority in horrific ways. Just this last week with the sentencing of the gymnastics doctor who was allowed to victimize young women for years because those in positions of power chose to protect their position and institution rather than protect the victim. This is just one instance of people with authority and power victimizing the weakest in society to maintain the status quo. The Catholic Church, Boy Scouts, Penn State University, and various other institutions have all done the same thing exercised authority in a moral vacuum.
Jesus embodies how authority and power are to be practiced. In his teaching Jesus is bold and honest. Jesus speaks the word of truth. In the healing of the man with a demon Jesus sees the man as a victim and casts out the demon. Ironically, even the demon recognizes the authority of Jesus and has to do as he says when Jesus says, “Be silent, come out of him.” Jesus isn’t afraid to address evil and do the right thing even if it’s on the Sabbath. Jesus from the get go shows his disciples and us how to truly embody power and authority and it is in service to others. Jesus could have been like the other religious leaders with authority and had the man cast out. However, Jesus saw the humanity of the man and had the evil cast out. As the gospel continues the way Jesus practices power and authority and the way the religious leaders practice power and authority will come into direct conflict and eventually the cross.
Back to authority and repentance, when Jesus tells people to repent for the kingdom of God is near he means to turn toward himself and follow him. As we journey through the Gospel we are not only to follow Jesus by mirror his behavior. Jesus uses power and authority to bring release to the captives, preach good news to the poor, heal the sick, and raise the dead. At no time does Jesus use his authority to line his own pockets, watch his own back, and protect his religion. Jesus does the opposite Jesus uses his power and authority by handing his life over for our sake. As Christians we are called to pick up our cross and follow him.
Power and authority are to be exercised in humility and in the knowledge that God has given both as a gift for the betterment of people. When exercised in the way of Jesus great things can be achieved and wonderful blessings experienced, however, when exercised as a means of personal gain, usually a trail of victims are left in the wake. Look at who suffered in Michigan, Penn State, the Catholic Church, it was the weakest most powerless of God’s children. Now, look at who Jesus aided with his power and authority the weakest and most vulnerable of God’s children. Power and authority are gifts from God and like all gifts we have free will to exercise them as we see fit. However, like all good gifts give them back to God and ask God to use them for you and then great things may follow.