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There was once an MP who was campaigning hard to be re-elected. One day, after a busy morning chasing votes (and no lunch) he arrived at a church barbecue. It was late afternoon and the MP was famished.
As he moved down the queue for the food, he held out his plate to the woman serving chicken. She put a piece on his plate and turned to the next person in line. “Excuse me,” the MP said, “do you mind if I have another piece of chicken?” “Sorry,” the woman told him. “I’m supposed to give only one piece of chicken to each person.” “But I’m starving,” the politician said. “Sorry,” the woman said again. “Only one to a customer.” The MP was a modest and unassuming man (you can tell this is a work of fiction!), but he decided that this time he would throw a little weight around. “Do you know who I am?” he said. “I am the local MP.”
“Do you know who I am?” the woman said. “I’m the lady in charge of the chicken”.
Authority exists in many different forms. It can be about a time and a place, as well as about roles and responsibilities, as the MP in our story discovered. Someone can have authority in one context and entirely lack it in another. It isn’t always easy to tell who’s in charge, or who has the right to make decisions – though I’m sure this is never a problem at Minster!
And if it is true that authority can depend on a time and a place we sometimes look for clues to work out when it’s being used. We might know that someone is a person of authority because they have the right kind of badge. In health centres and other places the staff wear identification to show that they have the authority to be there. They carry a ‘token’ that tells other people who they are. We don’t just trust them because they represent themselves, but because they represent something a lot bigger.
If we need the services of a solicitor, accountant or other professional we look to see that they have the authority of a professional body. We want to know that their conduct is regulated – that if we have a complaint there will be someone to go to. All around us there are public authorities for education, health, trade and the law. Together they provide a framework in which we live, knowing what to trust and who to question.
Of course, some of the fiercest conflicts in our history have been about where authority lies in both religion and politics. Is the head of state also the head of our religion? Before it is established authority can often be contested. We ask, ‘who gave them the right to make decisions for us?’ Authority has to be authorised and accepted if it is to be truly effective.
Perhaps the single quickest way for someone to lose authority is for there to be a difference between what they say and what they do. No matter how strongly they carry the mandate of an institution, if a gap begins to emerge between what they say and do then people begin to lose faith in them. Like the parable used by Jesus in our Gospel today, we have more respect for the person who acts than the person who pays lip service. It’s not for nothing that we have the proverb ‘actions speaker louder than words’.
When the chief priests and elders of the people began to question Jesus’ authority what they were concerned about was his official status – his mandate. They are asking who put him in charge. Jesus takes that question and deflects it to another recent religious leader who lacked official approval: John the Baptist. Jesus challenges the leaders to tell him where John’s authority came from. If the authority for John came from heaven then the leaders couldn’t deny that the same might be true for Jesus. He might not need the human endorsement of a religious body: it might just come from God and be recognised by the people.
The authority of Jesus, like that of John, is that the people who know their need of God turn to him.
His authority is authentic – it comes out of living experience rather than a book, a tribunal or a legal charge. Jesus doesn’t have a badge. There’s no convenient ID for the religious leaders to see. They find Jesus scary because he doesn’t fit into their world: he isn’t ‘one of them’.
What’s more, it becomes clear to the leaders that Jesus isn’t interested in joining their holy huddle – their club – and that frightens them even more- Because they have nothing to offer Jesus. In fact, Jesus’ authority is greater with the people because he isn’t seen as an official representative.
Of course, in all kinds of ways in our world today, we need to see ID and evidence of authority. But authority that is inauthentic is of no use to anyone. I sometimes meet people who think that the Church always needs protecting in our society. That laws need to be made to back it up (or prop it up)! It always strikes me as showing remarkably little faith in God. If we believe that the figure we read about in the Gospels is risen and in the world – is present through the Holy Spirit- then the authority of the Church shouldn’t depend on institutions, laws or privilege. Our authority should come through what we do, the care we give and the love we show.
In our Gospel today we are reminded that what drew people to Jesus was his living authority. Jesus put his words into deeds and this is what drew people to Jesus 2000 years ago, and it is the only thing that will draw them to him today.
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