Today we held one of our Mid-Day Dialogues of Faith at UST School of Law. Each of these dialogues focuses on some issue on which there is divergence of view between Catholicism and other Christian denominations or between Christians and non-Christians. The topic of today’s dialogue was Scripture and Authority.
I moderated the dialogue, which involved two of my friends and colleagues, Joel Nichols, currently the law school’s Associate Dean, and Fr. Dan Griffith, a fellow of the Murphy Institute here and pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes. Fr. Dan spoke from a Catholic perspective and Joel from an Evangelical one. Each of them made some opening remarks, after which we had a lively discussion. Rather than summarize the session, let me simply encourage you to listen to the podcast.
You can access a recording of the dialogue here or stream it from the icon below. (The podcast runs for 30:19.) As I usually do, I recorded only the comments of the speakers, not the dialogue with the other participants.
In today’s Gospel from Luke, we hear that the people who heard Jesus teach in Capernaum “were astonished at his teaching because he spoke with authority.” Later in the passage, after Jesus heals someone suffering from the spirit of an unclean demon, the people were amazed that Jesus commanded the spirit “with authority and power.”
What did it mean that Jesus spoke “with authority”? He wasn’t “in charge” in a formal sense. He didn’t have any official “authority” in the sense in which think of the word, that is, in terms of someone having a position of authority.
As used in the passage, the word “authority,” means something different – and much more important – than simply having a position of authority. Rather, I think what the Gospel writers were trying to convey was that there was an authenticity and integrity to Jesus. His power and authority came, not from any position, but from the fact that He spoke and acted out of a truth written on his heart.
We are all called to live our lives as Christians with the same integrity and authenticity as Jesus did….called to know the truth written in our hearts and to live out of that truth at all times. That is not always easy for us to do, but that is the model of Christian living Jesus left for us.
In today’s Gospel from St. Mark, Jesus heals a man with an unclean spirit. The people “were amazed and asked one another, ‘What is this? A new teaching with authority.'” Earlier in this passage and again in others, we hear expressed, in one way or the other, the idea that Jesus taught with authority; I’ve commented on such passages before.
Authority is a word many of us have difficulty with. We are suspicious of others telling us what we have to do (or believe). When I was a law student, I had a sign over my office door that read “Question Authority,” which expressed well my view…then and now.
In talking about belief in “Our Lord” Jesus Christ in her book In Search of Belief, Joan Chittister helpfully distinguishes between “the personal authority of Jesus” and “the official authority of the systems around him.” The latter had to do with “the trappings of power, the oppression of the powerful, the favoring of institutional control over the need of [individuals].” Jesus, in contrast, “governed no one” and “enriched everyone.” Chittister writes
The personal authority of Jesus far outweighed the official authority of the systems arounds him. He wore no phylacteries. He rode on donkeys. He held no positions. And he listened to everyone. He listened to blind beggars and foreign soldiers and small children and contentious Pharisees and homorrhaging women. His only rules were love. He went about forgiving sins and curing ills and confronting the legalisms of the institutions so that people could be free. He preached that when mercy and peace and compassion and justice set into a people, that the kingdom of God broke into their lives at the same time. And the followed him from one end of the country to the other in droves. He was the Lord without lordliness. No chains, no miters, no thrones, no public relations advisors. He lorded it over no one. He died on a cross and compelled an empire.
The personal authority of Jesus is one I can accept without the hesitations that the word “authority” tend to raise in me. It is an authority I can be moved by. Something I can follow from one end of the world to another.
Earlier this week, my friend Richard sent me a link to the sermon he heard in his Episcopal church this past Sunday, which addressed the subject of authority. (In the Episcopal church, as in the Catholic Church, Sunday’s Gospel reading was the passage in Mark where Jesus is teaching in the synagogue and is said to be “teaching with authority.”) The sermon is very powerful and well worth reading in its entirety, which you can do here.
One of the things I reflected on after reading the sermon, was what it said about why it is that Jesus made such an impression with his teachings. The minister observed that “it wasn’t merely what he said, which was extraordinary in itself, but how he said it. The authority with which he spoke was the most astonishing thing about him. When he spoke about God, he didn’t speak as one who merely believed in God or studied about God, but as one who knew God. When he spoke of the intricacies and confusion of the human heart, he spoke as one who knew and understood our struggles as well. He had the kind of confidence that came from knowing who he was and where his destiny lay. His authority was from within, ‘not like the scribes,’ as others said, bestowed by position or derived by the voice of tradition.”
This is important. We need to be very careful about to the external authority to whom we entrust ourselves. There are many who hold themselves out as authorities, but not all who so hold themselves out are worthy of the label. I think the quoted passage above does a good job of guiding us in discerning to whom we wisely can entrust authority. Does the person speak not as one who merely believes or studies about God, but as one who knows God? Does the person speak as one who knows and understands our struggles? Does the person speak with the confidence that comes from knowing oneself and one’s destiny?
That is an authority worth the name. “When we find such people, or are ourselves that person for another, we know something of what it means to have the power of God working through us or through another human being for us. We learn something about God through this mysterious process of hearing truth spoken from another and then owning it for ourselves.”
In today’s Gospel from Luke, Jesus is teaching in Capernaum on the Sabbath and the people are astonished because “he spoke with authority.” (A similar phrase appears in Mark’s Gospel, where we are told that Jesus taught “as one having authority.”) Later in the same Gospel, Jesus heals a man suffering from the spriit of an unclean demon. After he does, the people say to each other in amazement that Jesus commaned the unclean spirit “with authority and power.” Those words always strike me.
That word “authority,” I think means something different – and much more important – than simply having a position of authority. Rather, I think what the Gospel writers were trying to convey was that there was an authenticity and integrity to Jesus. His power and authority came, not from any position, but from the fact that He spoke and acted out of a truth written on his heart.
We are all called to live our lives as Christians with the same integrity and authenticity as Jesus did….called to know the truth written in our hearts and to live out of that truth at all times. That is not always easy for us to do, but Jesus asks nothing less of us than that.