By What Authority ?


(painting by Michael D. O’brien)

from September 25, 2011

Year A Proper 21

Matthew 21  

When the temple officials and priests corner Jesus in the reading from Matthew, they are still upset about the recent incident in the court of Gentiles. Jesus had proceeded to turn over the tables of money changers and chase vendors out of the area which had been supposedly set aside for Gentiles who came to pray.

It certainly would hurt them in the pocketbook to lose this opportunity for a religious business, which I am sure they considered a service to pilgrims who didn’t have a certified animal for sacrifice or the required special coin for the offering plate.

Where did Jesus get the authority to do such a thing? And all these other stories of his healing on the Sabbath, and strange teachings on the Torah.

Jesus responses with another question, “Where did John the Baptist get his authority? Was it from God or was John just another human making up the stuff he preached for human motives?

The priests felt trapped. They couldn’t rightly say John was heaven-sent, because the next question would be why they had not taking him seriously and supported him. On the other hand they couldn’t say he was just making his stuff up because so many people were convinced he was a prophet and now a martyr. They would come down in the crowd’s estimation if they indicated they didn’t think very much of him. So they pleaded the fifth. “We can’t say.”

Well,” Jesus responded,”I can’t tell you where I got my authority .

Here is the thing. By dodging the questions they actually revealed that they were more concerned with preserving their status and interests than in taking Divine authority seriously. They looked religious enough, but they lacked a real seriousness about the quest for where God is at work in the world. It was a profitable business, not a passionate pursuit.

Jesus tells a parable. A man had two sons. He asked the first to go work in his fields and the boy said “Sure, Dad.” But despite that the boy never actually got around to going. The second son was asked, but he turned his Dad down. That wasn’t for him. Only later when he was alone, he reconsidered and without saying a word to the father, quietly went to work. Which one do you think pleased the father? Which one took the father’s authority seriously?

Jesus suggests that these religious leaders who were so against him talk a good line, but don’t actually get around to doing the real work of God– in fact they get in the way of it. Meanwhile, some of the people folks had written off as no good, people who originally said they weren’t into God stuff, for some reason have come around to doing just the things that God had wanted done.

Jesus says, “Those formerly bad folk who actually end up submitting to God’s call are going to get into heaven ahead of some of those who act so holy but are only serving themselves.”

Jesus has an uncomfortable way of ripping off our self-delusions and asking us to consider whether our right talk is backed up by our right walk.

But the parable raises in another way a strange thing about authority. One son superficially acknowledges the authority of his Father to ask him to work for him. His acknowledgment causes him to say “yes.” The second son says a blunt “no” to his father’s face. But then when he is by himself, he repents of refusing and turns around and does what he had been asked.

Why do you think he does that?

What would cause him to revise his response?

It was not because he heard any threat. He doesn’t seem to be in fear. Nothing apparently happened when he said no. There is something about real authority that works on us so that we freely decide to fulfill the request because we know it is right, or because we know we owe it to the person who asked, or because we know that not to obey would be to betray ourselves.

The Father did not use force. He did not make either son go. He merely asked them to.

Paul says work out your own salvation for it is God who is at work in you to will and do his good pleasure. We have to take our salvation and do something with it, figure out how to live to the glory of God. It isn’t enough to say “Yes” We have to live out a yes. If we go to work in the fields God sends us to, we will discover that God is there working in and through us. As Paul said of his mission experience, in a lot of trouble sometimes but never abandoned.

So maybe salvation is like getting a scholarship to go to college when you could not afford to pay for it. You still have to work hard to get that degree. Salvation is more than just “getting in” it is what you do after you are in, how you grow and change and become someone who is equipped and experienced to make a difference.

But it is not something that God presses you into with force. It is something God calls you to by grace. The authority of God does not rest in his power but in his love.

Tony Campolo is not only a powerful preacher he is a professor of sociology, or has been, he has retired from teaching now. More than once I have heard him quote a distinction Max Webber makes in his classic work Social and Economic Organization. Webber there says that power and authority are not the same at all. In fact, in many ways they are opposites.

Tony illustrated it this way. When those blue lights start whirling in your rear view mirror, you pull over, not because you want to but because the patrolman has power. Among other things he has a gun. and he can call for backup. He can force you off the road and it won’t be pretty. The patrolman doesn’t have to use the force. It is enough to know he has it to make you pull over.

On the other hand, Tony said, his mother did not have much power, a slight Italian woman who Tony could have picked up and pushed aside. When he did something she asked him to, it wasn’t because of her power it was because of her authority. It was because of the thousand things she had done for him across the years that left him beholden to her. Her love as she had demonstrated it was the thing that made him want to please her.

It is true in relationships. If a man uses force to get his wife to see things his way, her agreement is more from fear of his power than respect for his authority. more a matter of trying to keep peace and protect herself, than a genuine desire to return tenderness.

The difference is between forcing or threatening someone to do something or loving them is that when your relationship is based on love you lose power. It is possible for the other person to disappoint you or hurt you or spurn you and make you look foolish.

But that is exactly the kind of authority that God wields. The authority of supreme sacrifice and love. Paul told the church at Corinth “When I came to you, I was determined to preach the cross and only the cross. It is foolish to the Jews, who ask for signs from heaven. And it is foolish to the Greeks, who seek human wisdom… the weakness of God is stronger than the might of humans. The foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of man.

The church at Philippi was a good congregation. It is just that there was this tension between people who had strong wills and it was stressing the relationships in the church. Paul named the problems: wanting your own way; thinking others were your inferiors, using pressure or power politics to get your way.

Paul says in Philippians “Have this mind in you which you have in Christ Jesus.”

A strange way of putting it. “Have something you already have.” Maybe it is like this, “You have answered the Divine call to let Jesus enter you life, well Christ is in you, let him shape you into his likeness. It is possible to grow ever more like the Jesus whose Spirit has come to be in you.”

And then he proceeds to recite that Jesus hymn. About how Jesus did not cling to the sort of things we think make God god. He emptied himself of divine prerogatives and protections to come for us and our salvation. He shared our humanity. He went lower. He became a servant. and then he went lower again, he became a condemned, executed man.

He gave it all up in redeeming you and me.

Therefore God has highly exalted him. That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow in heaven and earth and proclaiming him the Lord to glory of the Father.

Tony Campolo

Now, a good example of what I mean by authority is in the story of Mother Teresa. There is a city [Norristown] not too far from Eastern University where they have a state hospital. In the state hospital they have people who are emotionally and psychologically disturbed. It’s a huge place. Well, the directors of the hospital wanted to start these halfway houses so that people who were on their way to full recovery could be nurtured from the hospital back into society, by first going to these halfway houses and from there they could get jobs and, little by little, own their own residences. It was a transition stage and that’s why they wanted these five halfway houses. Needless to say, the people in the city weren’t particularly thrilled with the possibility of this prospect. There was a city council meeting. The place was packed. Five hundred people plus squeezed into this hall, yelling and screaming their opposition to the halfway houses. They didn’t want the, quote unquote,“crazies” living in their neighborhood.

Needless to say, the city council voted unanimously against the proposal. Not much discussion. A lot of yelling and a lot of screaming and the city council said no to the proposition. No sooner had they voted that the back doors of the auditorium were opened and in came Mother Teresa. She was in town for a ceremony dedicating a Sisters of Charity program and she heard about this meeting. She came down the center aisle and everybody gasped as Mother Teresa came to the front, got down on her knees in front of the city council, raised her arms and said, “In the name of Jesus, make room for these children of God! When you reject them, you reject Jesus. When you affirm them, you embrace Jesus.” And then with her arms upraised, five times in a row she said, “Please, please, please, please, please, in the name of God, make room for these people! Make room for them in your neighborhoods.”

Now, you’re on the city council, the television stations have followed Mother Teresa into the place and they’re grinding away. The newspaper reporters are there. There is Mother Teresa on her knees in front you. What are you going to do if you’re on the city council? You guessed it! “I move we change the decision.” And then a second to the motion and they voted unanimously to reverse the decision they had made a few minutes earlier. The newspapers reporting on this the next day said the most remarkable thing is that of the five hundred plus people packed into that hall, not a one of them uttered a word of opposition to the motion. Why? Because of Mother Teresa. She spoke as one having authority. Where did she get that authority? On the streets of Calcutta, loving sacrificing for the poor and the oppressed of the world, giving of herself to meet the needs of others sacrificially. Sacrificial love earned her authority.1


1Published in: Pennsylvania Super Lawyers 2008 — June 2008

Ed Mullin Is No Mother Teresa By Brian Voerding

But he did advocate for her mission in one memorable case

Ed Mullin had seen pro bono cases like this play out before—a group proposes a homeless shelter, local officials get skittish, lawyers are called, the group is strong-armed into going away. This time, he pledged, things would be different. For one, St. Patrick’s, his hometown church in Norristown, was involved. Second, Mother Teresa—Mother Teresa—was leading the charge.

This was back in November 1984. Mullin, who chairs the real estate and land use department at Hamburg, Rubin, Mullin, Maxwell & Lupin, heard that St. Patrick’s wanted to hand over an unused convent to three nuns who wanted to use it as a soup kitchen and shelter. But local government balked at the plan. He called the parish priest and offered his help.

“I was offended that someone was trying to do something good for the area, and people, for political reasons, tried to turn that down,” he says.

Only later did Mullin discover the nuns were part of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity. Mullin spent more than 100 hours over a six-month period arguing that the convent, located in a residential-zoned district, was the nuns’ home, and they, as owners, were allowed to have any number and sort of guests they wanted. A zoning board meeting was scheduled to settle matters.

When Mullin and the nuns arrived that evening, he was ready for the worst. Then he opened the door.

“We were like Jesus coming into Palm Sunday,” he says of walking into the hearing room. “Everyone was cheering and hooting.” It hadn’t hurt that Mother Teresa had come to town prior to the hearing to advocate for the nuns (Mullin was out of town that day and missed her). As one could imagine, she persuaded many opponents; one councilman even credited her with healing his aching back. The zoning board approved the shelter.

Lately, Mullin has been dealing with his own bad back. It makes him wonder what might have happened had he met Mother Teresa. But no matter. He’s sustained by the memory of three nuns trudging stoically through the snow on their way to the zoning board meeting, wearing only sandals on their bare feet.




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