Saturday, June 02, 2007


It's problematic at best.... Jesus' answer to the leaders who come questioning his authority in today's Gospel reading. One wonders why Jesus was deflecting the elders' questions. One might be tempted to conclude that Jesus had already dismissed them in his own mind, convinced that they were not going to accept his authority. However, I am not so sure.... I wonder whether or not our Lord might have been attempting to provoke his hearers to examine the basis for their concept of authority.

Mk 11,27-33.

"They returned once more to Jerusalem. As he was walking in the temple area, the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders approached him and said to him, "By what authority are you doing these things? Or who gave you this authority to do them?"

Jesus said to them, "I shall ask you one question. Answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things. Was John's baptism of heavenly or of human origin? Answer me." They discussed this among themselves and said, "If we say, 'Of heavenly origin,' he will say, '(Then) why did you not believe him?' But shall we say, 'Of human origin'?"--they feared the crowd, for they all thought John really was a prophet.

So they said to Jesus in reply, "We do not know." Then Jesus said to them, "Neither shall I tell you by what authority I do these things."

We'll never know what was going on in our Lord's brain, this side of heaven. But then the nature of authority itself is problematic, especially in a religous community such as the Church.
There are some things, however, which can be said specifically about how authority works in the Church.

The Church's authority is derivative. The reason the Church can speak authoritatively is not because of something she possesses in herself. Rather, the church's authority began and stems from her Lord, from the Incarnation of God in human flesh.

Whatever the Church speaks definitively arises directly from her beginnings: "You are the Christ, Son of the Living God" and "Jesus is Lord" are statements which carry a weight beyond their words. That weight requires the Church to speak authoritatively but also to acknowledge that the Deposit of Faith remains a gift. "Flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but my Father who is in heaven."

The Church's authority is hedged about by a history of faith and a thoughtful reference to reason. Dogmas aren't true because the Church says they are true. Truth comes from listening attentively to those who have gone before us in faith and also using the rational powers God has given to apply those truths to our own time. The real derailing takes place when teachers, theologians, and believers at all levels and intensities turn too far to one side or the other. It's a real balancing act to walk with the Fathers and Mothers who teach us but also give due weight to our own historical circumstance.

The Church's authority exists solely for the well-being of others. In the final analysis the Church's authority really exists in service to the salvation of souls. This is not a utilitarian argument. This is a pragmatic truth of which we all need to be reminded each and every day.
Don't believe me? Go to the source.... the Johannine letters. Here we find the emblematic phrase of our current Holy Father, "God is Love" and its immediate and necessary corollary, "Let us love one aother."
Throughout the rest of 1 John and even in the brief notes comprising 2 and 3 John one can experience the death throes of the Apostolic era... and the birth of Churchly authority. Those who followed the Beloved Disciple are beginning to think intently about what life will be like after he passes from the scene. It isn't pretty and it isn't easy. But it had to happen.

Benedict XVI has written helpfully about this authority in the first section of his new book, Jesus of Nazareth. He is discussing the third of Jesus' temptations, the one on the mountain, and Benedict flashes forward to the mount of Ascension to discourse on authority (pp.38-39):

"The risen Lord gathers his followers "on the mountain" (cf Mt 28:16). And on this mountain he does indeed say "all authority in heaven and on earth has been been given to me" (Mt 28:18). Two details here are new and different. The Lord has power in heaven and on earth. And only someone who has this fullness of authority has the real, saving power. Without heaven, earthly power is always ambiguous and fragile. Only when power submits to the measure and the judgment of heaven- of God, in other words- can it become power for good. And only when power stands under God's blessing can it be trusted."


Deep Furrows said...

A great question.

It's interesting that Jesus asks the pharisees to commit themselves one way or another regarding John's authority. They don't even consider what's true. They just think about how each answer will make them look.

The pharisees don't embrace John's call to repentance, but they don't denounce him as a fraud either. So for them authority has to do more with power than with truth.

Also if John is the forerunner, then one must recognize the question that John asks in order to receive the answer that Jesus is.

What do you think?

Phil B. said...

The whole Pharisee thing leaves me a little hesitant. They correspond, at least vaguely, to those of us who trust in continuing revelation (as opposed to the Saduccees- who were more like Jewish fundamentalists- only a Pentateuch, no afterlife or angels because they are later additions). So perhaps Jesus expected more of a response from them. Indeed, it was from the Pharisees that Jesus' first followers came. But when you throw in John (and Jesus') likely Qumran-ic associations then you've got a real mess of options. They rejected the Temple but revered the person of the Messiah and the Law.

Suffice it to say that the radical way out was the one Jesus taught and lived.... that the Person of the Messiah was the rallying point and focus of revelation. Of course, it helps that this is where Catholic theology began and ended up- otherwise we wouldn't have had endless councils around the nature of God and Christ.

Interestingly enough, I am almost half way through Benedict XVI's new book and most of it follows along these lines of discussion, focussing on Who Jesus Is ... very thoughtful, very Christological, and very readable. Thanks be to God!

Sam W said...

Interestnig that you parallel the Sadducees with fundamentalism. I'd always thought of the Sad's as more like secularized Christians. Those that take the Gospel as a wisdom work about a great revolutionary - those that suppress the divinity of Christ as they focus upon his humanity. The Cozzen's of of their time.

I frame them in this light since my understanding is that they tended to be the wealthy and powerful of that time. So, your perspective gives me something more to consider.

So, given my frame of reference, perhaps wrong, I considered that the leaders, scribes and elders were probably Sad's rather than Phar's - perhaps a mix of both. In either case, they were in position of power and authority. The problem is, their authority was balanced upon a fulcrum. Their authority came to these people by accident of birth and/or by knowledge of scripture. Priests were born into priestly families. Elders where the patriarchs of the families in power. The scribes were either born into or apprenticed into families with a history as scribes.

The people invested authority upon these priests, elders and scribes due to their position, their knowledge, the ability to provide for the people and protect their culture/religion. While they were often born into these positions, they did have to go through some training or seasoning to serve in the role. The expectation of the people had to be fulfilled lest their authority wane - they had to provide for the people and protect the Law of God. All of this in a Roman state, with a people dispersed across the Hellenistic world. Their had been recent insurrection, the people were uneasy under the heel of Rome, and then you had these sects rising up that defied the temple (the Essenes for axample).

The leadership had become politicians, perhaps at the cost of their role as servants of God and the people of God. The leadership was trying to serve too many masters: protecting their positions under Rome, keeping the people in line so they did not cause trouble, recognition that their very authority flowed from Holy Scripture, and God. Needless to say does not appear to be ordered correctly.

So, I guess I'm not surprised they were unwilling to commit to an answer to Jesus. They did exactly what politicitians with multiple masters and consituencies do, they hedged. It simply shows that they were failing in their primary role: servants of God. They had so many voices calling for their attentions that the important voice of God remained unheard - that voice in their daily life and the voice of Jesus.

This is a danger we all face when we raise too many concerns and allow them to compete with God.