All of our readings today seem to be saying something about authority, a word that many Americans and most teenagers almost instinctually react to and want to rebel against as antithetical to our prized American individualism. What else are the “terrible twos” all about but learning how to resist mom and dad and assert ourselves and our own independence and authority, a trait that comes in very handy later as teenagers, and perhaps for years afterward as we rebel against institutions and resist authority in any form. It reminds me of a particular bumper sticker that was a fairly common sight when I lived in Berkeley, California. It said, “Question Authority.”
The worst kind of authority that absolutely should be questioned is what we sometimes call “authorial authority,” where someone in a role of leadership relishes exercising their power and vaunts it over others in a dictatorial way, personal integrity and trust be damned.
But there is another kind of authority that we associate for instance with those who really know their subject and can be relied upon as a good source of knowledge and perspective about it, and we learn something when we pay attention to them. There are also those people in positions of leadership whose authority we slowly learn to trust because of their own integrity and capacity to listen and their reliable use of good judgment. These are the people who over time come to earn their authority from us, as something we grant to them through our experience of them as being trustworthy, as worthy of our trust.
Unless we’ve spent some time in the military or in a large institution with a clear and obvious chain of command, we may have a hard time relating to the Roman Centurion’s 1st century language and view in todays gospel. He is in a clear position of authority, and accustomed to telling one servant to do this and another to do that and they do it, just as he must respond to those in the chain of command above him. As a Gentile himself who has been a generous benefactor in the building of a synagogue, he can even direct the Jewish leaders to bring Jesus to him, and they will do his bidding. While that, too, says much about others deference towards him, he also has the capacity to recognize the authority of others, and that is why he seeks Jesus out in the first place to heal a slave whom he loves.
Yet the authority the centurion places in Jesus, who is clearly outside his normal chain of command, is of a kind that recognizes real authority, that has heard or seen it in action and knows it’s genuine, that trusts the capacity of another to deliver, that recognizes the power of someone else’s unique gifts which are integral to who they are. This kind of authority comes about because we see that it works, is reliable, and it honors us nbso by serving us well. That’s why we have confidence in those with real authority and put our faith in them, especially when we sense it in those who feel answerable to a higher power.
It doesn’t really matter whether the person of real authority is the philosopher-king that Plato imagined was best suited to guide the ideal Greek city-state, or the Lincoln we elect who proves to be uniquely fitted to the times, or the parent who wisely chooses not to react like a tyrant in response to their 2-year-old or teenager but as a compassionate and patient listener. The principle about real authority is
embodied in each, just as it was (and is) in Jesus. It’s not really about them; it’s about those they serve.
But before we can truly benefit from the real authority of another in our lives, like Jesus, we actually have to place our trust in him, even at a distance as the Centurion did when he sent the Jewish elders out to find Jesus. We, too, have to make up our minds about whether to follow Jesus at this distance of time, twenty centuries after he walked the face of the earth. We can either keep straddling the fence and limping along with two opposing opinions, as the doubting Israelites did with their God in today’s first story of real authority, or we can take a stand and live accordingly.
In that wild scene from Hebrew scripture, we see Elijah setting up a contest between Israel’s God – who rules the cosmos and created the heavens and the earth — and the various Canaanite storm gods of Ba’al, which after all ought to be able to generate some lightning and fire when needed, but are incapable of delivering in the end. It’s meant to be a lesson about faithfulness to the living God, about remembering to trust what really works and taking your stand there and not wavering, even when the answer you might want doesn’t seem to be forthcoming on our timetable. As Parker Palmer once said, it’s about minding your call even when no one seems to be calling. It’s about staying faithful and true to your heart and your history.
This dear nation of ours has a lot of false gods: Rugged individualism. Power. Wealth. To say nothing of our massively false belief in unlimited material progress and endlessly rising material affluence. These idols of ours may get us through the next hundred days, but what about the next hundred years? How do you think we are doing as a species on earth? What really works? In what source of ultimate authority, in what big story, in what living tradition do we place our trust and take our stand? Just who and what are we prepared to serve?
The centurion made up his mind to trust Jesus and inspired the phrase that many Catholics now say just before coming to communion, “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.” When Jesus heard what the centurion said, he was amazed, and turning to the crowd that followed him Jesus said, “I tell you, not even in America have I found such faith.” But among those who followed him and put their trust in him, he did find great faith. They were healed, and they helped mend the world.
LET US PRAY: O God, your never-failing providence sets in order all things both in heaven and earth: Put away from us, we entreat you, all hurtful things, and give us those things which are profitable for us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.