Authority. The authority of Jesus Christ is what Paul writes about in the letter to the Philippians, in which he quotes a liturgical hymn sung in the early Christian communities:
At the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord. (Phil. 2:10-11)
Jesus’ authority is also the subject of today’s Gospel lesson.
Back in the 1960s, the hippies taught us to question authority, which is what both sides do in the gospel conversation between Jesus and the chief priests and the elders of the people. These temple leaders ask a good question of Jesus, “By what authority do you do the things you do?” (Mt 21:23) This is always a good question. “Where does your authority come from? How are you using it? To whom are you answerable?”
The name Thomas Hobbes may be familiar to you. Hobbes was a social philosopher of the earlier Enlightenment. He was born in 1588 and died in 1679, witnessing the English Civil War of the 1640s. Hobbes, considering the Western European (and especially English) civilization of which we are the heirs, developed the philosophical concept of “the social contract.”
Rejecting both the traditional view of Monarchists, the so-called “Divine Right of kings,” and the radical democratic ideas of Cromwell and the Parliamentarians, Hobbes held that “political authority and obligation are based on the individual self-interests of members of society who are understood to be equal to one another, with no single individual invested with any essential authority to rule over the rest.” Nonetheless, he maintained a conservative position that the Sovereign must be ceded absolute authority for society to survive. (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
Hobbes argued that this contract among the “equal” members of society could only be abrogated or changed by the unanimous consent of all, from the lowest member of the lowest class to the Sovereign. Of course, in practice this would mean the social contract is immutable because those at the top would be very unlikely to agree to change the advantages and privileges of their position.
That immutability was rejected by Hobbes’ younger contemporary, John Locke, who was born in 1632 and died in 1704. Although he agreed with Hobbes that civilization is based upon a social contract, he rejected the idea that it could not be change. He argued that “legitimate political authority depends . . . first on a unanimous delegation of authority by (or consent from) the governed, and, second on its being exercised in a manner consistent with the purposes for which it is constituted.” Legitimate political authority, he said, is always limited, always constitutional – not necessarily in the sense that of a written constitution, but rather that it is constitutive or inherent in the society – and it is never justified only by power. “Political authority regularly exercised in a manner hostile to the purposes for which it is always and everywhere constituted is illegitimate,” Locke argued. Therefore, “in serious cases citizens may be free, perhaps even duty bound, to resist it.” (John Locke)
About a hundred years later, a man named Thomas Jefferson relied on Locke to write, in a document which we as Americans revere, that “governments are instituted among [humans], deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
This, of course, was not the governing assumption of the chief priests and scribes. Their idea of social organization was something more like the English Monarchists; they believed that social positions were determined by God, that civilization was set up as dictated from on high. And yet, it was the practical reality with which they were faced. They knew that their position in society depended upon, if not the consent, the acquiescence of people.
When they questioned Jesus’ authority, Jesus turned the question on them: “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?”
They didn’t answer him immediately. Instead, “they argued with one another, ‘If we say, “From heaven,” he will say to us, “Why then did you not believe him?” But if we say, “Of human origin,” [and here are the important words] we are afraid of the crowd’ . . . .” (Mt 21:25-26) Their position depended upon the crowd not rising up and disputing it! The consent of the governed.
Now, let me shift gears for just a minute. I’ll come back to this issue of authority, but first I want to ask you a question. What is the fundamental truth of the Christian faith? You might tell me to look in the Creeds – the Nicene Creed or the Apostle’s Creed or even the Athanasian Creed – but the fundamental truth of the Christian faith is NOT set out in the Creeds. The Creeds affirm, one might say, the peculiar truths of Christianity, but there is a basic, foundational truth which underlies them. This fundamental truth of the Christian faith is found in the answer to the question asked by the Israelites in the desert: “Is the Lord among us or not?” (Exod 17:1-7)
This fundamental Christian truth is NOT represented by the Cross, as important as the Cross is a symbol of our faith. The fundamental truth of the Christian faith is represented by the image in a verse of today’s Gradual Psalm, an image reported also in other parts of the Hebrew Scriptures: “He led them with a cloud by day, and all the night through with a glow of fire.” (Ps 78:14, BCP version)
The fundamental truth of the Christian faith is that, in answer to the Hebrews’ question, “Yes, the Lord is among us.” The fundamental truth is that God leads us by day and by night, as God led the Israelites. The fundamental truth is that God’s grace, in the words of one of our prayer book collects, “always precede and follow us, that we may continually be given to good works.” (Proper 23, BCP Pg 234)
That continual presence of God and of God’s grace was the source of Jesus’ authority and it is the source of ours. In the prologue to John’s Gospel, the Evangelist assures us that “to all who received [Jesus], who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.” (Jn 1:12) In the same Gospel, Jesus makes this promise: “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.” (Jn 14:12) In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus concluded the parable of the Good Samaritan with a commission, “Go and do likewise.” (Lk 10:37)
Each of us individually and all of us collectively have this authority; that we have it together is a check upon its misuse. Paul addresses this in today’s reading from his letter to the Philippians: “In humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” We are to seek agreement and consensus, to be of the same mind, to “let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 2:3-5)
Our bishop teaches a model of authority responsibility when he describes the polity of the Episcopal Church. He argues that all authority in the church is baptismal authority, which all receive at our baptism. We surrender some of that authority to others, who receive it as responsibility to accomplish particular ministries in the church. The members of a congregation surrender some of their authority at the annual parish meeting when they elect vestry members, who receive that authority as responsibility to govern the parish conscientiously. The vestry surrenders some of its authority when it calls a rector. The parishioners, at the annual meeting, also surrender some of their baptismal authority to diocesan delegates to represent the congregation at the annual diocesan convention. Those delegates, in turn, do the same as they elect a bishop or the members of the interim governing bodies or the diocese’s deputies to the triennial General Convention.
The bishop asserts that this democratized polity in which authority and responsibility arises from the pews, rather than flowing down from some senior minister or sovereign, is our peculiar American Anglican charism, our gift to the Communion. That may be, but I would submit that it is, in fact, the way in which all human society is organized, whether knowingly as in our church’s case or unknowingly. I suggest that it is no less applicable to secular society than to church polity; each individual has autonomy and authority, and surrenders it “upward” so that the authority of government derives from the consent of the governed
The chief priests and the scribes asked a good question, a better question than they knew. Jesus answered them rightly, in good rabbinic fashion, with basically the same question. What is your authority? By what authority do you do this? Where did it come from? How are you using it? To whom are you answerable?
These are the questions we must ask ourselves. We must ask them in the privacy of our own minds on a daily basis of our individual actions. We must ask them in the collective deliberations of our communities, both religious and secular. We must ask them of the actions of our leadership in the church, in the nation, and in the world.
The fundamental truth of the Christian faith is that God is always present, that God’s grace always precedes and follows us, and that God’s grace is the source of all human authority. This means that that authority must be exercised according to God’s commandments, summarized by Jesus in the two Great Commandments: “Love God” and “Love your neighbor.” (Mk 12:29-31)
My favorite prophet, Micah, summarized God’s expectations this way, “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Mic 6:8)
Authority used in any other way must not only be questioned but, when it is serious, we may be duty bound to resist it, to witness against it, perhaps (as St. Paul wrote quoting that hymn) to bend the knee, bow the head, and make our case even in the face of public opposition.
(Note: The illustration is “Arab Kneeling in Prayer” by Charles Bargue (c. 1875), on exhibit at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland.)
A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the 17th Sunday after Pentecost, October 1, 2017, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.
(The lessons for the service, RCL Proper 21A [Track 1], are Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 78:1-4,12-16; Philippians 2:1-13; and St. Matthew 21:23-32. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)