When I was in college someone gave me a button that I probably still have in a drawer somewhere. “Question Authority” it boldly proclaims.
“Question authority” was a philosophy that suited a journalism student well. In fact, I spent my college years, and many years after, doing exactly that.
But it wasn’t just journalists who had that philosophy. In the turbulent years after Vietnam and Watergate, a whole generation of Americans was disillusioned and skeptical and suspicious of anyone in authority.
That suspicion and skepticism remain alive and well today. We see it every time we pick up a newspaper or turn on the TV. Someone in a position of authority – an elected official, a police officer, a clergy person – is being questioned.
That suspicion is evident in national polls that show that respect for and trust in our institutions of authority – Congress, the church, financial institutions, the press – is rapidly eroding.
All too often, someone in a position of authority has betrayed our trust.
This morning we hear about a different kind of authority. In the past few weeks we have heard Mark tell the story of how Jesus was filled with the Holy Spirit at his baptism. We’ve heard how he called his first disciples, urging them to lay down their fishing nets and follow him.
Now Jesus is making his first recorded public appearance as a teacher. He does it at a sacred time, the Sabbath, and in a sacred place, the synagogue.
The people who gather for worship that day, who presumably do not know Jesus, are astounded at his teaching. The reason for the amazement, Mark says, is because “Jesus taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.”
That in itself is a rather astounding statement. The scribes were the religious authority of their day. Their role was to read and interpret scripture.
They were the ones people looked to for guidance on how to follow God’s laws. And here comes Jesus, on their turf, threatening their authority with his teaching.
It doesn’t take long for Jesus’ authority to be challenged. The unclean spirit that possesses a man interrupts him, crying out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?
“I know who you are, the Holy One of God,” he continues.
The unclean spirit is theologically astute; he recognizes who Jesus truly is. But that recognition does not give him power or authority over Jesus.
Instead, Jesus, the one filled with the Holy Spirit, looks at the unclean spirit, and commands him to be silent and leave the man. And with an agonizing cry, the unclean spirit obeys.
Again, the people are amazed and exclaim to one another, “What is this? A new teaching – with authority!”
What impresses Jesus’ audience seems not to be the exorcism itself – exorcisms were not uncommon in those days. And it’s not necessarily the content of his teaching – there is not even a record of what Jesus said that day.
What impresses them is the quality of his teaching, the authority with which he speaks and acts.
What gives Jesus this presence? What is the nature of his authority?
The first definition of authority in the dictionary is “the power to enforce laws or exact obedience.” That is the kind of authority we give to elected officials, judges and police officers. That is not the nature of Jesus’ authority.
Nor is his authority based on his social standing, professional rank, wealth or credentials. That is more the authority of the scribes.
Jesus’ authority is different. We get a clue to it in our Old Testament reading for today when God promises Moses that God will raise up a prophet from among the people of Israel.
“I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet,” God says. That prophet will “speak everything that I command.”
Jesus’ authority comes directly from God.
But we have all known or heard people who claim to be speaking the word and will of God, who instead are what scripture calls “false prophets,” – those who “speak in the names of other gods,” such as money, power, and self interest.
Jesus’ authority also comes from his authenticity. His words match his deeds. He lives what he preaches. The people in the synagogue recognize that and respond.
Think about our own experiences. The people we respond to and allow ourselves to be influenced by are not necessarily the authorities designated by office or position.
We might obey or give a grudging respect to people who have official power over us, but we most likely respond mosre positively to those who seem authentic to us, those who are trustworthy, knowledgeable, believable, and reliable.
Those with authentic authority are not manipulative; they do not use their power to benefit themselves at the expense of others.
That is the nature of Jesus’ authority. His teaching and preaching are not to glorify himself, but to further God’s reign of justice and peace. His miracles are not to show off his power, but to restore others to wholeness and health.
In the musical Jesus Christ, Superstar, Pontius Pilate confronts Jesus about his power and authority.
“Prove to me that you’re divine,” he says. “Turn my water into wine. Prove to me that you’re no fool. Walk across my swimming pool.”
Jesus refuses, not because he cannot perform such acts, but because to do so simply to glorify himself – or even to save himself – would be an inauthentic use of his power and authority.
Jesus’ authority also does not come from obeying laws and rules – even religious ones. In fact, he often gets in trouble with those in positions of religious authority for ignoring the rules – for healing on the Sabbath, for disregarding the purity laws by eating with outcasts, for talking to women and treating them as equals.
Jesus’ authority does not insist on absolutes. It values people over tradition and rules.
Poet and theologian Gerhard Frost describes Jesus’ authority in his poem “Loose Leaf.”
When your options are either to revise your
beliefs or to reject a person, look again.
Any formula for living that is too cramped for
the human situation cries for rethinking.
Hardcover catechisms are a contradiction to
our loose-leaf lives.
That is the seeming contradiction in Jesus’ authority. He, more than anyone, knew and lived the intent of God’s laws.
But his authority does not come from a “hard covered catechism.”
Jesus, instead, understands the “loose-leaf” nature of the human existence. He understands that living the gospel means entering into relationships, and inviting people to live into the image of God that is embedded in each of God’s people.
That means to Jesus relationships are more important than dogma, caring for and respecting another person is more important than blind obedience to law.
Jesus’ authority is exemplified in a statement of mature, loose-leaf faith that I find encouraging: “I believe in fewer religious truths than I once did, but I believe them more deeply.”