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Authority Now and in the Old Times

from the “Nurture in Time and Eternity” collection

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

Deuteronomy 18:15-20
1 Corinthians 8:1-13
Mark 1:21-28

January 29, 2006
Marsh Chapel
Boston University

The problem of authority in religion vexes us today as it has throughout history. One of the ongoing battles of the American culture wars is the dispute over the authority of scripture. Fundamentalists say that the scriptures are literally true. More moderate evangelicals say it is sometimes hard to determine what the scriptures say, but when you do determine that, it is absolutely binding because its truth is divinely inspired. Neo-Orthodox theologians such as Karl Barth say that the scriptures themselves are not inspired but that they are witnesses to events that are divinely inspired, or are God-in-action. Theologians such as Paul Tillich say the real authority is the depth dimension of human experience, and that this allows us to interpret the religious meaning of scriptures. Eastern Orthodox theologians tend to say that the scriptures are primary in a long tradition, which, as embodied in church councils, is authoritative, including its interpretation of scripture. Roman Catholics theologians say much the same thing but add that the Pope is the authoritative arbiter of competing elements in the tradition when he speaks ex cathedra. One dimension of the Protestant Reformation stresses the authority of individual responsibility so much that each person is his or her own authority, even in the interpretation of scripture. Many Americans like to think there is no authority at all, that all truth is relative, and that each person can decide what to believe and do on the basis of will, or whim.

If you think this is a confusing situation with regard to authority, things were no better in the ancient world. Consider our three texts.

In the Deuteronomy text, just before Moses died and the people entered into the Promised Land, he was exhorting them with the news that the Lord would raise up a prophet like himself after his demise. Look closely at the reason the text gives for why there have to be prophets. On Sinai or Horeb, God himself (yes, he was male) came close and almost killed the people with his holiness. So Moses as prophet was a safe substitute for God, speaking for God without threatening the people with God’s own presence. He also said the people should obey his successor, because he too would speak for God. In point of fact, no prophet ever arose in Israel as great as Moses, who was a friend of God. Moses could get close without being consumed. Joshua, his immediate successor, was an effective military leader, but no profound friend of God or spiritual guide. Elijah was a fearsome agent of Yahweh’s powers, blasting the priests of Baal and rallying the people; he heard the still, small voice. But he was no friend of God who liberated the people of Israel to the extent Moses had. Christians, of course, like to think of Jesus as the successor prophet to Moses. The name “Jesus” is the Aramaic version of “Joshua,” who was the historical successor to Moses as the leader of the people, a point not lost on his first-century comrades. But Jesus, however powerful and even divine, was not a prophet like Moses. Nowhere does the New Testament record a conversation between God the Father and Jesus, except from Jesus’ side; and Jesus did not win a war of liberation. No Jew would say that Jesus was Moses’ successor except in small ways. Moses, at least in the biblical tradition, delivered God’s Word as the authoritative Torah, the Pentateuch, the Law. Jesus left only some sermons, parables, and other sayings. Jesus himself believed that Moses had given the authoritative Law.

Mark’s gospel text about Jesus says that Jesus taught as a person with authority, not as the traditional teachers of Israel. The traditional teachers had to cite the authority of Moses and the other scriptures. Jesus just taught as he thought, although we know from other passages that he also sometimes cited scripture. The drama in our text comes from the presence of a man in the synagogue with an unclean spirit. The spirit was a demon, as they conceived it in those days, that made him crazy. That the demon was unclean meant that it rendered the man unworthy to be in the presence of God, as Leviticus and Numbers described ritual uncleanness and what can be done about that. Now the demon named Jesus as the Holy One of God, which we might think was a wise and true thing to say. But Jesus commanded the demon to be silent, and to leave the man, which is what happened. From this the rest of the people concluded that Jesus was authoritative not only because he spoke without footnotes but because he had powers to cast out demons. The ancient world took such exorcisms very seriously. We know that the religious meaning of casting the unclean spirit out of the man was that the man was allowed to approach God again, a far more profound and general point that Christians make about Jesus. The book of Hebrews says that Jesus leads us all into God’s presence in the Heavenly Temple. Jesus has the capacity to make us friends of God. Nevertheless, when we think about authority, it does not cut much ice with us when a person speaks his or her own mind with originality, or even when a person does what we see as magic. You cannot believe everything proclaimed with originality nor can you be overly swayed by unusual powers. As the great early American theologian Jonathan Edwards said, Satan can counterfeit any miracle.

So let us look at Paul’s more complex case. Paul never claimed to be a prophet, only a teacher. Several times he drew distinctions between what he thought was revealed by Jesus and what he figured out on his own that he hoped was an extension of Jesus’ teachings. In our text he was dealing with the following problematic situation. In Corinth, just about all the meat for eating was to be bought at temples of various sorts where it had been ritually slaughtered, as in the kosher preparation of meat. Many religions had temples in town, with many gods served by ritual sacrifices that produced meat for the temple market. That was the way the butcher business was run in those days. Paul noted a class distinction within his Corinthian congregation. On the one hand were the sophisticated literate folks who would read his letters. He and they knew that there is only one God, whom they knew as the God of Israel, the Father of Jesus Christ. All the rest are either misunderstood versions of the one God or are merely idols, statues. So it was fine with the sophisticated community to get its meat from any of the temple butcher shops because there was nothing there to be afraid of. On the other hand were the unsophisticated and superstitious people who had joined the Christian movement but were convinced that there were competing gods who had to be avoided. For them, eating meat sacrificed to idols was idolatry.

Had we 21st century people been in ancient Corinth, we would have educated the superstitious people and brought them out of their cultural ignorance. It is second nature to us to believe that part of the Christian life is education. The Methodist tradition of this University reflects John Wesley’s assumption that educational institutions for the improvement of the lower classes are properly religious institutions. But Wesley was one of the first to believe in religious social transformation. Paul, like nearly everyone else in the ancient world, thought that social classes were fixed categories. So the superstitious Corinthians either had to be vegetarians or fall from their Christian faith by what they had to conceive as idolatry. Paul advised the sophisticated Christians, who could eat meat without threatening their faith, to refrain nevertheless so as not to tempt their tender neighbors.

What kind of authority did Paul have in this advice to the Corinthians? He did not claim to have gotten it through a direct revelation from God, as he did in some other matters. Nor did he claim that he was making his own inferences from what Jesus said about analogous things, as he sometimes did in sexual matters. Rather, his authority came from his being an arbiter of what is good for the community. He argued that the sophisticated people should put up with restrictions on their liberty to eat meat, and the pleasure that goes with it, in order not to sow confusion and temptation to others in the community. While we may lament the patronizing attitude this expresses toward the unsophisticated, we can note with approval that Paul was sustaining a very mixed community.

The people respected his authority, or he at least hoped they would, because he appealed to the larger value of the faithful community. His argument about the issue at hand was pragmatic. He said there was absolutely no religious significance in whether you eat meat or not. But the dilemma lay in whether some people would be tempted to betray what they thought was required for their faith, and this affected the whole community.

Authority in our day is legitimate when it is more like Paul’s than like that ascribed to Moses or to Jesus in these texts. Moses and Jesus were charismatic authorities, commanding because they expressed the powers of their relation to God. But we know that charismatic authority can be completely irresponsible, as it was in Hitler’s case. We know how the media can be used to deceive and make people look godly when they are only charlatans. Of course, it is difficult to be inspired to do difficult things that require sacrifice, without charismatic leadership. Charismatic leaders are important and perhaps even necessary, in religion and politics. But charisma should not convey authority. We should be suspicious of that. Rather we should look for the authority that comes from being expertly faithful to the good of the community. For religious communities, that expert faithfulness to the good always includes the capacity to relate the religious ground of that community to the circumstances at hand, as Paul did with the Corinthian vegetarians.

Expertise is an important part of authority, but not a sufficient condition. Paul knew about how some people eating meat in the congregation would put terrific psychological pressures on people who think they have to abstain from meat because to eat would betray their faith. He said that the liberty to eat meat was not as important as sustaining the superstitious people in the community of faith. Paul was an expert in the charity and forbearance required for life in Christian community. Our own issues for Christian life are just as complex as his, and expertise both in spiritual matters and social matters for churches is more detailed and scientific now than in his time. Our authoritative leaders need to have that expertise, or our religious life will be like St. Anthony when he called all the people to gather in the church to pray about the plague, thereby infecting nearly everyone.

But expertise by itself is not enough for religious authority in our time. We also need the recognized wisdom to discern the good for the community. Wisdom comes from experience, but also from a readiness to learn, humility, practice in the exercise of authority where mistakes are not disastrous, and from a deeply chastened religious sensibility. Religious authority now as much as ever, perhaps more than ever, requires deep spirituality, long experience with the dark night of the soul and with the bliss of God’s loveliness.

As we all know, not a few people believe they themselves have the requisites for authority, the expertise, the experience, the spiritual qualifications. But authority is bestowed by those who respect it, not by those who claim it. Religious institutions seek to vet claims to authority by various requirements and trials, including processes that allow the community to approve or disapprove those to whom they would grant institutional authority. My discussion of ordained ministry last week touched on that. But alas we know that institutions can promote to official authoritative positions people who lack the expertise, the experience, and the spiritual substance for true authority. Furthermore, authority rather than mere law enforcement is needed precisely at the point where new circumstances require institutions to change and where the old tests might have become irrelevant.

Therefore, Beloved, I am sad to say that the responsibility for cultivating and identifying religious authorities lies with us who need authorities to respect. To some degree we can count on professional peer evaluation and certification. Nevertheless we need to be skeptical both of charismatic charlatans and institutional bureaucrats defined by faithfulness to the status quo. We cannot do without authorities, nor each be our own authority, because we live together in communities that need authoritative leadership. So we need to cultivate and assess authorities ourselves. That imposes a burden of expertise on all of us, and a responsibility to discern our own as well as other people’s depth of experience and spiritual substance. All of this is to say that part of our calling as Christians is to create a community that understands and creates the authorities it needs, and that knows how to respect and embrace that authority critically. Although we might think this is merely a political necessity for community life, it is in fact a matter of divine call. For, the authorities we respect and should respect in religion are those who speak for God in matters great and small. To be sure, we all are responsible in the end for our own behavior and beliefs, and cannot pass that responsibility off to others. Nevertheless, we have learned enough humility about ourselves to know that we ourselves are often not the authorities we need, even for ourselves. Are we not often charlatans to ourselves? Do we not often think we have the requisite expertise when we do not? Do we not often think we have experience when it turns out we missed what was before our face? Do we not know that the spirit in our lives is sometimes not the Holy one? Our personal, as well as corporate responsibility, is to find and follow those who, like Moses and Jesus, and Paul too, genuinely speak for God. Or to say this another way, we need to find friends of God who can lead us to become friends of God.


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