I find myself increasingly questioning the various “authorities” that we encounter daily: whether those are on t.v. promoting various ends, ads that land in my mailbox telling me that I must act “fast” or encounter expensive repairs, or the self-help author who proclaims that their “fix” is the thing that will make my life easier if not happier. I don’t know when this started to happen; surely, it was building when facts seemed to mean less and less over the past year, and began to undermine the naïve foundation which I had taken for granted—a foundation that naturally, human beings would be more interested in truth and facts, than lies and purposeful misleading evasions. Again, I don’t know.
A clue to my increasing irritation with various so-called “authorities” rose to the surface when a seemingly innocuous column showed up in one of my monthly pulp magazines—suddenly someone was promoting “spiritual advice” in a magazine whose raison d’etre is the effective means of running a household. I found myself wondering, “Who in God’s name is this person? And why has she become the authority in this column that is supposed to speak to readers of multiple faiths, but who is promoting a decidedly Christian perspective?” And I might add, “Christian lite.” It bothered me. Not that I was exactly envious, but that the vast riches of faith were reduced to a tidy little column in a magazine that had little to do with spiritual care for the masses. Seriously. And then the next mental question was, “Well, what are you going to do about it?”
In today’s gospel reading, Jesus is recognized “as one having authority” and contrasted to the scribes who apparently carried little authority. Yet, Jesus’ authority was here located/recognized in the synagogue, not in a pulp magazine appealing to household managers wishing to improve their skills and so one might say that my opening example has nothing to do with Jesus’ recognized authority. Yet, I can’t help to wonder if Jesus was received by some—not reflected in this passage—as an imposter in territory that he had no business being in. We know that there was friction between those Jews who found a breath of fresh air in the way that this so-called people’s rabbi taught. But others were skeptical.
And that leads us to consider how we relate to authority—whether our own, that of recognized authorities in our midst, or that of Jesus.
When I was growing up, I remembered slogans of “question authority” on buttons, bumper stickers, and the like. Truth be known, I appreciated the slogan but had little patience for those who questioned authority just to show to others how much of a rebel they were. I always wondered, “yes, but for what reason are you questioning authority?” It seemed not a little fake to me to question authority just because one didn’t care for being bound to any authority at all.
And what about you? Were you ever taught why you might follow or consider one authority over another? Did you ever have a school lesson on why listening to certain authorities might be more worth your time than others? I do not recall such a lesson in grade school. Definitely in college, critical thinking was taught, expected, and measured. And so, as those rioters stormed the Capitol to do God-knows-what, I wondered at what their rationale was – beyond what the news has told us—for blindly following those authorities to which they gave prime real estate in their brains. Even if Jesus himself ordered me to do something, I would want to “test the spirits” and see if I were not just a bit deluded.
I realize that this may seem strange to speak about on a Sunday, but I hope that you—as believers of Jesus—also test the authorities of your individual and collective wisdom. We do not and should not follow blindly.
In the passage that was shared today, a man in the synagogue “with an unclean spirit” seems to recognize the wisdom of Jesus and how that wisdom won’t tolerate whatever “unclean” behavior or destructiveness had hitherto been tolerated. I am reminded of when a substitute would come to teach our classes in school. If the substitute did not know our names, all hell would break out. The substitute carried no authority and could only make us mildly listen. Yet, the substitute who arrived at class with some familiarity of our names, who tried to engage with us, to teach us something that we did not already think that we knew, who cared about what we thought, and who relied not on threats and forced quiet, usually earned our respect and was recognized as legitimate. It was a tall order.
So, there is something in the man’s unclean spirit that recognizes that the game is finished, and Jesus is a holy man of God in this brief synagogue appearance. That is worth a second listen. The onlookers marvel at Jesus’ teaching with authority…and his fame spreads.
Though surely the reality was not so easy as that. We are in Epiphany and this is one of those readings that highlight how Jesus’ authority began to be recognized and why.
Again, I ask— “What of us?” On what do we base authority?” Is it simply a matter of choosing the authority that reinforces our assumptions, opinions, and experience? Or is there something more? Before we mock those who follow Q-Anon or believe in the deep state, we might also interrogate our own blind following of whatever authority seems to reinforce our own personal opinions or experiences.
Surely, authority is not simply a given. Surely, authorities must earn our respect. Why do you grant authority to some opinions, facts, historical interpretations, and not others? What would cause you to question those that would seem to be possessed by an “unclean” spirit like our friend in the Capernaum synagogue?
I can’t tell you on what you should base your own authority or why you might listen to some authorities than others; I suspect that it is different for each one of us.
However, I can point out a couple of things about Jesus’ authority and that might help you to figure out why you subscribe to some authorities and not others.
As tradition has taught, Jesus taught with authority, but he did not pursue power or authority for power’s sake. He had a sense of the common good, a sense of those who needed encouragement, and experiential understanding of those who were out to just elevate themselves at the expense of the marginalized.
We might ask ourselves which of today’s authorities speak for the common welfare of all and the betterment of humankind, rather than promote their own ambitions or agenda. As we have seen, even Christianity can become toxic and contaminated by un-Jesuslike ideas and behavior.
Which leads us to another characteristic of admirable authority: it is self-questioning and self-corrective. Meaning, within the authority, there is a means by which internal criticism is welcome and even expected. Does your authority or the authorities to which you lean possess self-correcting behavior, norms, and critical challenges from within?
Another characteristic of Jesus’ authority was that he tended to take the lower place. He stooped to serve is how we might remember it. Whether by washing his disciples’ feet (one of the dirtiest parts of their bodies), by touching the lepers and outcasts, or by not resisting imperial power with a sword—he “emptied” himself as scripture says. In the words of the author of Philippians, Jesus “who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, and being born in human likeness, and being found in human form, he humbled himself.” (Phillipians 2:6-7)
To what extent do the authorities that you esteem “stoop to serve”? To what extent do they willingly “empty themselves” of their opining in order to NOT exploit those who are weaker or who are equals?
These are some of the questions that we might take into our week—a bit of critical thinking about those authorities to which we give credence and those that we question. Perhaps by applying these questions to our own authority and that of others, we will pursue a deeper, more sustaining truth.
Ken Blanchard, an American businessman, wrote, “The key to successful leadership today is influence, not authority.” I understand this to mean that we win by influence what is not always granted by authority. Certainly, Jesus had a significant influence on his peers and contemporaries, surely an influence that has been extended to us. But influence unquestioned can lead to atrocities of both the mind and heart. And I have it on good authority that Jesus suffered and died because of unquestioned influence.
May we not crucify Christ a second time by refusing to question our own allegiances and those things that have held sway over our own considered authority. Siblings in Christ, remember these words from Philippians again, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”
May it be so. Amen.