Sermon: XXI Pentecost (24b)

Patrick Allen on October 23, 2012


XXI Pentecost (24b)
Is 53.4-12; Mk 10.35-45
21 October 2012
Fr. Patrick Allen

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I have a distinct memory from my childhood, of riding in the family car, with my father driving.  We were on our way home, hot and sandy, after a few days at the beach, driving up a long and lonely stretch of highway 37 in central Florida, when suddenly there were lights and sirens and Dad was pulled over by a highway patrolman for driving in excess of the posted speed limit.  A couple days later, I was enjoying a nourishing meal at McDonald’s with my mother and some friends and their mothers, when my mother, desirous of making an edifying point about due deference to authority as modeled by my father asked me, “Patrick, what was the first thing your father said when that highway patrolman pulled him over?”  

Well, again, I was just a little boy, and this exciting encounter with Johnny Law had etched itself in every detail upon my memory.  I knew exactly what my father had said and could quote him precisely.  And I did:  “Elizabeth, hide that beer!”

I recount that story mainly for the purpose of mortifying my mother when she listens to this sermon on the website later this week.  But also because it strikes me now that her concern that I and my friends should learn to emulate my father’s due deference to properly constituted authority seems now almost quaint, doesn’t it?

To the postmodern mind, there is really no such thing as a duly constituted authority, there are only structures of power seeking to impose their racist, classist, sexist, hetero-normative or otherwise oppressive values.  Bumper stickers and graffiti encourage the young and not so young to “question authority.”  I saw part of a television show the other night in which a husband said to his worried wife concerning their daughter, “Honey, she’s sixteen years old and she’s sleeping with her boyfriend, there’s nothing I can do about it.”  And in the context of the show, this was clearly intended to be the mature and realistic, and not the simply pathetic, point of view.

I could go on.  But my point is not to give a standard “the world is going to hell in a handbasket” curmudgeonly screed.  Not at all.  If young people are inclined to question authority, if some parents have ambivalent feelings about their authoritative role in the lives of their children, if the postmodern critique of traditional notions of authority has found some cultural purchase, there’s a reason for that.  Authority gets abused.  We can think of Richard Nixon justifying himself to the journalist David Frost: “I’m saying when the President does it, it’s not illegal.”  Sexual abuse of children by clergy begins as an abuse of the authority inherent in the priesthood.  We’ve already heard a word this morning...

Again, I could go on.  But really there’s nothing new here.  The problematic nature of authority has been right on the surface since our first parents fell from their created bliss.  Abused authority is emblematic of sin’s curse in this world:  God said to the woman, “your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” The original harmony is destroyed, and the battle of the sexes is on, a tug-of-war between tyranny and rebellion.

And right in this morning’s Gospel lesson, right among the inner circle of the apostolic band, we see some characteristic human grasping for power and authority:  Teacher, say James and John the sons of Zebedee, Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.  And so Jesus sits the Twelve down to tell them, to tell us, about what authority is for, what it looks like when delaminated from human sin - indeed what it looks like when exercised by the one to whom “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given,” the King of kings and Lord of lords.  And so having seen it, and having been served by it, we might in our own little spheres of influence and authority, begin to reflect it:  

You know that those who are supposed to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

So, first of all, and quickly, notice that Jesus assumes that authority will be exercised among the community of the redeemed - that is to say, in the Church:  Whoever would be great among you... whoever would be first among you.  Were there to be no authority, no hierarchy, among his disciples, there would be no need for Jesus to go into all this.  But there are jobs to be done, roles to be played, some of which come with heavy responsibility and, with responsibility, honor and authority.  Which is simply to say that authority is a good thing, or at least a necessary thing, even if it may be abused.

Which, let’s admit, is not saying much.  With the rare exception of the occasional anarchist, just about everyone agrees that some kind of authority is necessary, if only to restrain the depredations of human evil.  I’m teaching a Sunday school class on the Ten Commandments, and the Commandments have this effect – they free us to enjoy certain human goods by restricting certain human evils.  But it would be a mistake – albeit a common one – to suppose that it is human sinfulness that necessitates the institution and exercise of authority.  We can say something more on behalf of authority.[i]

James Madison famously said in the Federalist Papers, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”  But, with all due respect to the father of our Constitution, that’s not exactly right.  Authority is for more than the restraint of evil.  And, in fact, there is order and authority among the angels, unfallen and sinless beings that they are, and there will yet be authority among perfectly redeemed and glorified human beings in their heavenly estate.  Because angels and men alike are still created beings, still finite, still limited.  And there are some things, some very good things, that we limited, finite beings are not free to do absent an appropriate authority.

So suppose you are a cellist, and what you want most is to play in an excellent performance of a  Beethoven symphony – or, just suppose, if you’re a soprano and what you most want is to sing in an excellent performance of, to take an instance purely at random, F. A. Gore Ouseley’s choral anthem, “From the Rising of the Sun” – if you want to do that, if you want to enjoy that freedom, then you will need to submit to the authority of a conductor (or choirmaster) if what you want is to make music and not noise.  The conductor’s authority is necessary to coordinate the playing or singing of the group, and this has nothing to do with sinfulness or “broken-ness”, but only with createdness, which means, necessarily, with finitude.  The conductor’s authority allows the musician to transcend her finitude, and to do some good thing, which, left to her own devices, she could not do.

It’s not a perfect analogy, and we could think of others, but it serves to point us in the right direction.  So, what is authority for?  Not just for restricting evil, but for enabling, empowering, freeing, those under the authority to achieve some good thing; it is exercised for their benefit and freedom; which is to say that authority serves, must serve, the higher value of love – which is exactly what we see in Jesus Christ.

Authority for self-aggrandizement, for domination?  It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

For the Son of Man also came. The model and rationale for any authority – in the Church, in the home, in the political sphere, in the workplace, in the classroom, on the playing field, wherever – is given in Christ’s own exercise of his authority.

It was, you know, perfectly possible for Jesus to set up a kingdom by the arbitrary exercise of power, to force people to do right and toe the line.  In fact, that’s exactly what Satan tempted him to do in those forty days in the wilderness.  Others, less subtle than Satan, attempted to make him King by force, precisely so that he would use force.[ii]  But our Lord rejected that approach.

Instead, Jesus’ authority is at the service of love.  It calls forth not the fearful obedience of a slave, but the willing, loving obedience of a Son – in fact, a free love and obedience just exactly like his own.  So, you see, authority rightly understood and properly exercised, is not a “golden mean” between fascism at one end and anarchy at the other.  It something different altogether.  The authority revealed by Jesus is a particular operation of love.

So, The Son of man serve, and to give his life as a ransom.  When we hear the word “ransom”, we immediately think of a hostage, a stolen person, and the threat of harm used to extort a payment.  But the reference here in the Gospel is more immediately to the price paid to redeem a slave – or more precisely, a man or woman who has fallen into slavery by, of his or her own fault, falling into an unpayable debt.

Jesus exercises his authority in love to pay our debt and to set us free, to give his life as a ransom for many, offering himself wholly and unreservedly to the Father, rendering perfectly and willingly the loving obedience of a Son, “even to death on the cross”:  He was wounded for our transgressions, and he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed.

On the cross we see the King of kings and Lord of lords in his glory.  “His crucifixion,” as Pope Benedict has said, “is his coronation.”  This is what real authority - without spot or stain of sin, but perfectly allied to love looks like.  Not irresistible force but perfect surrender; not “taking what is mine” but giving it away; not enslaving but liberating, not to be served but to serve.  

And when we fully surrender ourselves to that authority, we will be, finally, free at last.  It shall not be so among you is his command, but more importantly, and more wonderfully, it is also his promise.
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[i] This discussion based on Victor Lee Austin, Up with Authority (T&T Clark, 2010), and reviews in First Things by R.R. Reno and Peter Leithart.

[ii] Jn 6.15