And to the Author, All in Authority Must Answer – A Meditation on the Gospel of the 31st Sunday of the Year

The Gospel today is familiar to many Catholics from a negative point of view, in that many a Protestant has summoned the verse: Call no one on earth your father, to assail the Catholic practice of calling priests, “Father.” Never mind that the text also says to call no one on earth teacher. Never mind either that the New Testament contains almost 200 uses of the word “father” to refer to earthly male people. Apparently Matthew, Mark, Luke and John along with Paul and Peter and Stephen, never got the memo banishing all use of the word in reference to “anyone on earth.” (We will see some of these quotes later). Never mind all that.

Alas, to turn this into a gospel about terminology, is to miss its main point, which is to teach us about authority. And the teaching is both beautiful and essential, especially in modern times when the notion of authority is so misunderstood and frequently maligned.

Before looking at Jesus’ teaching on authority it is good to be clear one point: While it is true you and I are under authority, we also have authority. Whether it is as a parent, at work, as a community leader, Church leader, or just because you’re older; you have authority.

Because we live in a culture that largely despises authority, we tend to think it is always the “other guy” who has authority and needs to be “put in his place.” Maybe it’s that jerk in the corner office, or those nasty politicians, or the boorish and backward pastor. But, look in the mirror, this gospel isn’t just for “them,” it’s for you. So, as we explore this teaching on authority,  remember it applies to you and me just as much as “them.”

Let’s look at the teaching in four stages.

I. The Tenure of Lawful Authority.  Jesus says, The scribes and Pharisees have taken their seat on the chair of Moses. Therefore do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you but do not follow their example. Jesus teaches the disciples that, for now, they are to remain under the lawful authority of the Scribes and Pharisees. In the future, Jesus will fully send forth his Church and establish the authority of the Apostles themselves. But for now, they are to follow lawful authority, just as Jesus will expect the Church to be under the lawful authority of the Apostles and their successors in the future.

Christians are not encouraged anywhere in scripture to withstand, ridicule, resist or overthrow lawful authority. The human tendency, especially evident in modern times, to be insubordinate and disrespectful of lawful authority is neither encouraged nor supported in the Biblical teaching. Consider some of the following examples:

  1. Rom 13:1 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.
  2. 1 Peter 2:13 Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men.
  3. Titus 3:1 Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good
  4. 1. Tim 2:1 I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone– for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.
  5. 1 Peter 2:17 Honor all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the king.
  6. Matt 22:21 Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.

Hence, the Lord Jesus, indeed, Scripture in general, upholds the proper need and place for authority. Modern tendencies to celebrate rebellion and disrespect toward authority are not countenanced by Scripture, no matter how popular and pleasing such negative attitudes may seem.

And these tendencies are exhibited at every level in our western culture. Children are bold and disobedient toward parents, younger people toward elders, subordinates in the workplace toward supervisors, citizens toward elected officials, Catholics toward the hierarchy, and so forth.

One may argue, “Well, the one in charge is a pain, or a bad leader.” Perhaps, but consider what Biblical times featured: from the Scribes and Pharisees, all the way up to Herod and the likes of Nero. Yet still this teaching went forth.  Others may rush to assert, “Authorities need to be corrected.” Yes, at times they do, and a Christian should use means that are both respectful and non-violent.

Vigorous political discourse is surely a feature and a genius of our modern democratic republic. However, too much of the discourse strays into the hateful, and the hyperbolic, toward personal attack and ridicule. Such extremes are unfit discourse for a Christian, who is called to speak the truth with both clarity and charity.

So in setting forth a teaching on authority, the Lord Jesus first establishes that there IS authority and that, other things being equal, lawful authority is to be respected and obeyed. And though, as the Lord clearly indicates, there are times when the example of those in authority should not be imitated (more on that in a minute), their lawful and moral directives are to followed.

Thus, in cases where you are under authority, pray, strive to cooperate, and correct where necessary with reverence. And in cases wherein you have authority, do not be ashamed that you DO have it. Use it well, for the common good, and to provide necessary direction and unity for those under your authority. Remember too, as we shall see, if you have authority, it is to serve.

II. The Tyranny of Arrogant Authority. Jesus does acknowledge the burdensome and insensitive qualities of the leadership of that time. He says, Do not follow their example. For they preach but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to carry and lay them on people’s shoulders. But they will not lift a finger to move them.

Here is a sober assessment by Jesus of the problems of leadership in his day. They will have to answer to God for their tenure. And Jesus holds them up as a kind of warning to the future leaders of his Church, who will also have to render an account for their leadership one day. “Do not follow their example,” Jesus warns.

As we shall see, true authority exists to serve, not to crush or merely exhibit its power. It exists to unite people around a common purpose and direct people and resources to a good and focused end. It exists to help others to accomplish their tasks in a unified and directed way. Hence we may ask the following questions of authority:

1. Does it make wings to lift a person up, or is it a deadweight to drag a person down?
2. Does help a person or haunt him?
3. Does it carry him does he have to carry it?
4. Does it bring joy to life or depression
5. Does it unite people around common goals or merely unite them in unproductive anger against authority?

How would those under your authority answer these questions?

III. The Trappings of Self-Centered Authority. Jesus sets forth how the Scribes and Pharisees loved titles, honors, and ostentation: All their works are performed to be seen. They widen their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels. They love places of honor at banquets, seats of honor in the synagogues, greetings in the marketplaces and the salutation, “Rabbi”

And so the Lord distinguishes the following problems:

  1. Their Actions are Acted – Jesus often called them hypocrites, not as derogatory, but as a descriptive. For the word hypocrite, in Greek, means “actor.” Now an actor performs and plays his role only when there is an audience. He does so for money and applause. But when the crowd is gone he does not pay his role.  There would be no point in that, since neither money or applause will result. The point here, in terms of authority, is that some in authority have forgotten the reason they have authority, or the goal to which it is directed. They care only about the praise that may increase their authority or build their ego.
  2. They Parade their Piety – The point here about authority is that the one in authority wants to be noticed as having authority. Rather than pointing to the end to which his authority is directed (in this case, God), some in authority see the acknowledgement of their authority as the proper end and desired goal.
  3. They Hunger for Honor – They seek the front seats, and to be seen as having authority. They take the honor due those in authority personally, as directed to them, rather than to the office they hold.
  4. They Take after Titles – But a title is only good if the one bearing it does not disgrace it. Having a title is not so much an honor as a responsibility.

So, in the end the poor example comes down to the fact that those in authority in Jesus’ time, mistook the “trappings” for personal ends and glory, rather than for the ends to which they were intended: the glory of God, the serving of his people and the common good and unity of all.

But leadership is not about trappings, it is about service and the glory of God.

IV. The Truth of Christian Authority. The text says,  Do not be called teacher (Rabbi) You have but one teacher. Do not be called Father, you have but one Father in heaven..Do not be called master, have but one master the Christ. The greatest among you must be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled. Who ever humbles himself will be exalted.

Jesus emphasizes Three fundamental things here, and I would a fourth.

1. All authority is under the headship of God – In critiquing the use of terms like “teacher,” “master” and “Rabbi,” Jesus is insisting that all teachers and “experts” must first be under the teaching and authority of God. All their teaching and “mastery” of any subject must be in conformity to, and submitted to the revealed truth of God. For someone to be worthy of the title “teacher,” “Rabbi,” or “Master” means that they are first submitted to what God teaches and reveals.

2. All Fatherhood, all headship, is submitted to the Father and Lord of us all and reflects His Fatherhood. No one deserves the title “father” who does not first have God for his Father. In this sense, Jesus is not so much banning a word, as insisting on a conformity to the one and perfect Father of us all. In this sense, St Paul can say, You do not have many fathers, For I became your father in Christ Jesus our Lord (1 Cor 4:15). And again, For you know how, like a father with his children, we exhorted you and charged each of you lead a life worthy of God (1 Thess 2:10).  St Paul takes up this title “Father” with them, only in relation to how he guides them to what the Heavenly and true Father would want.

3. Authority exists for service – Jesus says of those in authority: The greatest among you must be your servant. In other words those who have authority have to serve those under them, not to “lord it over.” Jesus says elsewhere:

You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Mk 10:42ff)

Hence, those who have authority, have it not for their glory, but as a sign of their servitude. The priest who has authority, has it to serve his people in teaching, sanctifying and governing (uniting). The Parent has authority to serve their children, raising them to become the man or woman God intends them to be. The police officer has authority to protect and give order to the people. The teacher has authority in order that she may teach. And so forth. Authority is not for its own sake, it is for the sake of others.

4. Authority is exercised among equals – In the world, authority is equated to power, and is often ascribed to those who gain it because they are smarter, richer, more connected, and so forth. In a way, there is an assumption that “I have authority because I am, some how, better than you.” But among Christians authority is always exercised among equals. For the greatest title one can have is “Child of God.” Adding titles like CEO, President, Grand Knight, Monsignor, Excellency, and so forth, are but mere footnotes. The Pope has authority in the Church, but he is no more baptized than you or I. Please understand, he DOES have authority, and we have an obligation to submit to it. But his greatest title is not “Pope,” or “Supreme Pontiff.” His greatest title is “Child of God.” Authority does not make me greater than you, it makes me your servant. But before God we are all equally his children. This final point is my own addition and I fully open it for critique.

So there it is, a Gospel not about terminology (as in “Father”), but about authority and how to understand it and live it as a Christian. Remember it is not just about “that jerk in the corner office.” It is about you, since you too, have authority. One day we will answer to God about how we have used our authority, whether to build or destroy, enable or disable, inspire or unnecessarily infuriate. We will also render an account for how we have acted toward those in authority. And, no matter the laughter and praise this world gives to disrespect and disobedience, God is neither impressed or pleased. Authority, how we use it, and respect it, is critical to God.

Note the word “Author” in authority. For no authority exists unless it is granted from God (cf Jn 19:11).  And to the Author, all in authority must one day answer.

Here’s one of my favorite hymns: Crown Him with Many Crowns. It is here sung on the 50th Anniversary of the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth of England. It is fitting to see those in authority, even if (these days) more ceremonially so, to be seen praising to true King from who all kings, queens and leaders take their authority.

Of this King, Jesus, we can say he is the only King who died for us. And so the second verse of the hymn says, Crown him the Lord of Love, Behold his hands and side. Rich wounds yet visible above, in beauty glorified. No angel in the height, can truly bear that sight, so downward bend his wondering eye, at mysteries so bright.

Indeed, For the Son of man did not some to be served, but to serve, and give his life as ransom for many (Mk 10:45)