Quiet and Authentic Authority

Frances writes on this Sunday’s Readings :- Why is it that some people speak and act with authority and are followed when others, even those who we might expect to wield authority don’t? It does not appear to be related simply to their power, for we can all think of political leaders who have held power but somehow lacked the vital ingredient which made them truly respected and followed, whereas we can also think of those who do not actually hold power but whose actions command our respect and support. People, it appears, have to earn the allegiance of others.

In our gospel (Mark 1:21-28) we are told that Jesus’ “Teaching made a deep impression” on the crowd, “He taught them with authority.” This, our gospel remarks, was in contrast to the teaching of the scribes. Perhaps there was that in their teaching which had become automatic or stereotypical, done because it was expected of them, part of their job description, but which lacked conviction. It may even have been that their behaviour did not back up their teaching. Clearly Jesus’ teaching carried great weight because it was backed up by his miracles, so that when he announced that the kingdom of God was among them, his actions proclaimed the actuality of his claim. Now clearly most of us could not rise to these heights, but our lives can still proclaim the kingdom life we believe in, by our work for the Common Good, and our small actions of kindness to others. This is something we all have to remember when we moan about the state of things, and yet insist that we are One with Christ. There is surely a contradiction between our belief in salvation and our long faces and general denigration of the world. This of course does not mean we go about full of a false cheeriness which is lacking in sensitivity to the needs of those around us, but we do need to convince by our general way of life.

Our passage from 1 Corinthians (7:32-35) can, if taken out of context, suggest that Paul was just a gloomy man with a down on the material goods of life and given to denigrating the married state. Paul makes clear that he is merely expressing his own opinion, and not that of the Lord here, but our brief passage is in fact part of a much longer teaching he gives on the married state, in relation to the wholehearted conviction of life in Christ he expects the new Christians to hold. We tend to forget the context in which he was writing and why it mattered. Corinth was a largely pagan city with two ports and the residence of the Roman Governor of Achaia. It lived by Roman rules and expectations, ones in which women were not equal in fact or law; where divorce and infidelity were very common, and in which pursuing a Christian way of life must have been very difficult. In this situation Paul’s solution was to advocate celibacy so as to aid the total focus and concentration upon Christ he knew was at the heart of his own life. Other parts of this letter will make very radical claims for the equality of male and female partners in the marriage bond, claims which made serious demands on the intimate behaviour of spouses to each other: that they love each other with total affection, ‘as Christ loved the Church and gave his life for it’, an unheard of degree of self-giving and commitment for the time. In this context we can begin to appreciate the significance of Paul’s authority as a Christian thinker struggling to make a reality both of the day to day Christian living of his converts and of their understanding of their faith and in this situation we come to see that Paul is not negatively disposed towards marriage, but in fact deeply concerned about his congregation’s espousal of the new and fragile faith they had taken on.

This issue of the veracity of religious teachers and their teaching is of long duration, as we see in our reading from Deuteronomy (18:15-20).This Old Testament book was a compilation of teachings brought together in the late 7th century BC under Josiah, before the Babylonian invasion and conquest of Palestine. As such it is rather a hotchpotch of teaching, some very old and some much newer and our passage is rather oddly situated amidst a collection of rules related to worship; the privileges of the temple priests; child-sacrifice and magic; cities of refuge and boundaries. Ostensibly the words of Moses, clearly they date from considerably later than the Exodus, yet here too, we can see the question of the true authority of the giver of this teaching being explored. The writers speak quite precisely of the giving of another prophet, someone like the original leader Moses, someone chosen from among themselves to guide the people, someone they must listen to, someone with authority. What we know of the subsequent behaviour of the nation during the Babylonian occupation speaks volumes of their lack of discernment, indeed, of their persecution of men like Jeremiah. Listening, comprehending the true message from God, and having the courage to act upon that conviction, was clearly as difficult then as now and we, like them, must struggle to be true to our faith.

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