When you hear the word “authority,” what comes to your mind? It might conjure up images of power and influence. You might even get the image of a person who is above others and who can tell everyone else what to do. Much of our image and feelings around authority has to do with our experiences of those who inhabit positions of authority. Whenever we reflect upon or try to understand a biblical image of authority, we need to focus our attention on Jesus. There were many other leaders who held positions of authority and there were other prophets and healers before Him who people listened to. But the Scripture tells us on the Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time that when Jesus taught with authority, there was something different about Him and the way He did it.
Jesus had many encounters with different folks who held positions of governmental or religious authority. In many instances, He encouraged people to follow the true teachings of their leaders but in many cases not to follow their behavior. Jesus noticed that some leaders of his time were willing to place large burdens on other people’s shoulders while they themselves were unwilling to help carry that burden. He also noticed how some leaders taught people to follow certain rules and regulations while excusing themselves from those same guidelines.
Jesus showed His power and authority through His actions as much as His words. As He sat at a table with public sinners and was ridiculed for His behavior, He simply invited people to wonder who needs God‘s presence the most. He noticed that sick people and poor people were often sent to the edges of society. Jesus showed His authority by going to the edge of society and being with them. Even when faced with Pontius Pilate, who had the authority to have Him killed, Jesus knew that authority didn’t measure up to the promises He had been given as the Son of the Most High God. He showed His authority by washing the feet of those who would betray, deny and abandon Him. His act of love on the cross was more powerful than any army.
Speaking and living the truth with love is the example that we were given to follow by Jesus. And so the question that the Scriptures lead us to this weekend is one of true authority and what that would look like as we try to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. Parents, grandparents and those who are responsible for the formation and growth of children know all too well that making their children do something by force will only last until they are out of their eyesight. We all know that somehow moral authority grows through the truth spoken and examples of what it looks like in the flesh. This is why Jesus has such a hard time with religious people who are hypocrites. We all have our shortcomings and ways we need to grow but to continue to live in hypocrisy, saying one thing and doing another, drains the authority out of the moral and spiritual guidance we are trying to give.
How can we speak the truth in love with one another? How can we, even when we notice the sin of another, remain faithful to them in love and forgiveness? The answer to these questions can be formulated in various ways but they all have to do with being like Jesus. Has He ever given up on any of us even in the midst of our deepest sin? Has God’s generosity toward you always been more than you could ever imagine? Is there anyway in the teaching of Jesus that we are told that we can excuse ourselves from loving another? Is your notion of authority based on “in weakness there is strength” or is it just the opposite? Is your notion of authority based on taking the highest seat in the place or taking the most lowly of positions?
The life of Jesus and His notion of authority was belittled many times in His life. Notice what truly brings about life more abundantly. And if you wonder if one person’s witness and life can make a difference, remember Jesus was one person. We are challenged and invited to follow in His authoritative footsteps.
Father Wester is pastor of All Saints Parish in St. Peters.