Based on Exodus 17:1-7, Philippians 2:1-13, Matthew 21:23-32
We live in a time when the role of authority in our lives is being reassessed. It doesn’t matter which authority role we consider – parental, journalistic, law enforcement, judicial, political/presidential, historical or religious…all previous areas of somewhat unquestioned authority have now come under increased scrutiny and subjugation. The authorities have become subjugated not because of some fundamental change in their intrinsic power, rather they have been systematically disempowered due to our own knowledge, hubris and fears – secondary to the ubiquity and subjectiveness of 24-hour news cycles and cell phone cameras. The perceived loss of the unquestioned power of authority is another crisis in our time; a foundational part of our communal lives which has been shaken after being exposed to the court of public opinion rather than reasoned dialogue. We find ourselves looking around nowadays and wondering in what or whom can we trust? In other words, we find ourselves asking to all who seek authority over our lives, what are your bona fides – that is, what is your evidence of good faith, genuineness, qualifications or achievements that I should be obedient to you?
Authority comes when we decide that something or someone has the bona fides to back up what they say – that they can be consistently trusted and believed. I offer the following story to illustrate this…a battleship assigned to train sailors had been at sea on maneuvers in heavy weather for several days. One evening the visibility was very poor, so the captain remained on the bridge keeping an eye out. Shortly after dark, a lookout reported, “Light, bearing on the starboard bow.” “Is it steady or moving astern?” the captain inquired. The lookout replied, “Steady, Captain,” which meant that the ship was on a collision course with the producer of that light. The captain then called to the signalman, “Signal that ship: ‘We are on a collision course, advise you change course twenty degrees.'” Clearly the Captain was the authority here.
Our scripture readings today have a lot to say about how we as humans often view our own authority in relation to that of other humans and to God. The Israelites are thirsty and are once again petitioning Moses and God for relief. Paul writes a hymn of the early church to elucidate the bona fides of Jesus to new believers. The chief priests and elders seek to know what are the bona fides of Jesus such that he believes he has the authority to be doing what he does. There is much here to reflect on today about to whom we owe absolute authority – let us go to God now in prayer that we might learn to trust implicitly in the bona fides of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit…
The descendants of Jacob/Israel are wandering in the wilderness but finally coming near to Mount Horeb. The people and their livestock have been without water and they fear for their collective lives. They raise up a cry against Moses and Moses fears for his life as the people appear ready to stone him. God hears Moses and the people and tells Moses to meet God at the foot of the sacred mountain where there will be water. All Moses has to do is to strike the rock upon which God is standing and water will flow so the people and animals can drink and be revived. Once again, God proves to Moses and Israel that they can trust this God who is always with them providing them what they need.
The Apostle Paul writes to the believers in Philippi that in order to grow into salvation they need to grow into the mind of the Christ. This mind regards the needs of others before self, is compassionate and sympathetic, humble – so humble in fact that the Christ “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave…and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross”. Paul continues that this mind of the Christ is available to all because of the actions of “God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his [sic] good pleasure”.
Jesus is teaching in the Temple when the elders and chief priests interrupted him. They wanted to know what were the bona fides that allowed Jesus to perform his miracles and teachings. Reading between the lines we hear them saying, “We don’t know you, Jesus, because you haven’t jumped through the proper hoops, submitted the required paperwork and had the necessary interviews to become an ‘approved’ teacher!” Jesus knows their hearts and their overinflated sense of authority and answers their question with a question about his cousin John’s authority to baptize. Jesus then tells the leaders of the Temple a parable about recognizing authority and becoming obedient to that authority.
Let us get back to our story about the battleship and the light beam. In response to the battleship captain’s message for the light to change course, back came the signal, “Advisable for your ship to change course twenty degrees.” The captain said to the signalman, “Send: “I’m a captain, change course twenty degrees.'” “I’m a seaman second-class,” came the reply, “you had better change course twenty degrees.” The captain was furious! Literally foaming at the mouth he spat out, “Send: ‘I’m a battleship. Change course twenty degrees.'” Back came the response from the flashing light, “I’m a lighthouse.” The battleship immediately changed course, narrowly avoiding disaster. It was clear who had the greater authority.
We humans often get an overinflated sense of ourselves and our authority, don’t we?! We go through life acquiring knowledge, credentials and experiences and using those as our bona fides to continue to work our way up the ladders of our chosen roles in life. We like to think that all of our hard work and “self-sacrifice” have given us the qualifications to be considered an “authority” – one who should be routinely obeyed and trusted. At the end of the day, however, whether we are a king or a serf, we are all the same kind of human just looking to get through the day intact, hoping that those we care the most about will love us enough to continue to show us some obedience!
This outlook on life extends into our spiritual lives as well. We’re not any better at obeying the commandments of God than our spiritual ancestors the wandering Israelites. We create our fancy theologies and doctrines, we try to explain the mystery of God and in so doing seek to subjugate the “Creator of the Universe” to our own limited understanding of things. Walter Brueggemann, in his book entitled, “Prayers for a Privileged People”, in a prayer entitled, “Sovereign”, has this to say on that issue: “We name you king, Lord, sovereign. We trust you, except sometimes we do not. We take matters into our own hands. We fashion power and authority and sovereignty; enforced by law and bureaucracy and weapons, we think to make ourselves safe. And then learn, staggeringly, how insufficient is our product, how thin is our law, how ineffective is our bureaucracy, how impotent our weapons. We are driven back to you – your will, your purpose, your requirements: care for land, care for neighbor, care for future. We name you king, Lord, sovereign – so undemocratic! And in naming become aware of our status before you…loved, sent, summoned. We pray in the name of the loved, sent, summoned Jesus.”
Our job then is to become aware of the authority of God and then our status before God as children who are loved, summoned and sent to do God’s work in the world. Why should you obey God/Jesus, you ask? The Apostle Paul has captured the bona fides of Jesus as a lovely hymn of the early church in his letter to the Philippians. Paul distills the whole of the Gospels’ account of Jesus and all his letters into these six verses. He’s basically saying that every reason you need to give yourself fully to the authority of God/Jesus is in this hymn. His bottom line is – go and do likewise – be compassionate and sympathetic, be united under the authority of the Christ, look to the welfare of all before yourself and your family. Just because you are followers of Christ, do not exploit your position, but empty yourselves to be in service to others. A humble service that calls us to die to our worldly selves and freely fall to our knees confessing loudly and continually that “Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father”. Once we submit to the authority of Jesus and of the Father God, then God can continue God’s work in us – transforming us into the mind and heart of Jesus; bringing us to salvation. Then, when worldly leaders interrupt us and ask us by whose authority do we do such great works for all of creation, we can reply to them that there is no authority on earth that can stop us for our bona fides are that we are obedient and beloved children of God. Amen and amen!