January 28-29, 2006, Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle B
I am sure I have told some of you this before but my favorite bumper sticker is one that said, “Question Authority” and then under that, “Ask me anything!”.
Today's first and Gospel readings are about authority. At first glance, the story we heard from Mark is about a miracle: Jesus drives an unclean spirit from a man who was possessed. Can you imagine this happening in our assembly? What would you be thinking? Then Mark reports that what astonished the people was how Jesus' taught! Not his casting out the demon. Not even the content of Jesus' teaching but the fact that he taught with authority, unlike the teachers they were accustomed to.
The Greek word that we hear translated as authority is exousia. This is a very interesting word in this context. At its root, this word means capability, ability. So we are talking about authority which goes deeper than credentials or position. It is authority that is rooted in the person's capability. And of course, this makes sense in the context of the exorcism story. It is like Babe Ruth pointing to where he would hit the next pitch out of the park. That was an authoritative gesture because of the Babe's ability to hit it there.
A second root meaning which is very instructive is authority which is delegated, which has its source somewhere else. In Jesus, this authority is God's authority which the Father has conferred on Jesus by filling him with the Spirit.
So here in this short passage we have Mark revealing a deep mystery of our faith. Jesus taught with the authority of God, conferred on him by the Father with all the capability that this implies. I would suggest that this is a very important mystery to reflect on because this authority did not leave the world when Jesus went back to the Father. We believe that Jesus passed this authority on to the church, filling it with his Spirit so that the church can teach with an authority that comes from God, and is therefore capable.
But I think we have to be very careful when we say that Jesus passed this authority on to the church that we don't locate that authority solely in the clergy and the theologians. The truth as expressed in many reflections in church documents is that this spirit has been given to all of us in baptism. Like the author of the bumper sticker, we have to be very concerned about who we look to as authority.
For a long time in our church, the baptized have not exercised this authority. It is lost in the mists of history whether most of us simply abdicated this responsibility or whether it was wrested from us. I tend to think we abdicated it, as the people in the story from Deuteronomy do. “Please Moses, you go find out what God wants and then just tell us. We don't want to have to face God ourselves!” The problem with that is then the people who are in the ministry of leadership cannot lead effectively. The role of those in leadership in church is not to impose their own ideas on the masses, any more than the prophets were to speak their own words. The working out of God's plan in this time and place needs to come from those engaged in living in this time and place. We need leadership to resolve conflicts and codify what is consistent with revealed truth.
Our second reading is a perfect example. Paul for all his brilliance and zeal is a committed bachelor. As such he just cannot imagine that a husband's concern for his family or a wife's attentiveness to her husband and children are as much things of the Lord as prayer and preaching and missioning, maybe more so. He gets it wrong in this section of the letter. The good news is that the church did not follow Paul's mistake. It has never declared that it is better to remain single than to marry. Oh there have been individuals along the way that have pushed that idea but the lived faith of millions of married couples over the last 2000 years has presented the authoritative truth to the magisterium and they have recognized that truth. In fact in two weeks we will celebrate World Marriage Day in recognition of the fact that married couples are very much things of the Lord.
We are going through some tough times in the church. I suggest that part of the reason is that we, the baptized, have not fully embraced the gift of the spirit that Jesus has gifted us with. If we are to exercise our proper office of teaching authoritatively we have to do some work. We need to trust our experience, that it is a mystical experience that is filled with God,no matter what our state in life. We do not even exist without God being present in us. But we have to make sure we are not interpreting that presence of God in our lives using false authority.
I would suggest that the message of that bumper sticker is true on several levels. In the first place, we need to question who or what it is that we recognize as authority in our lives. Is it really the authority of God, or is it an authority that leads us away from God? Our faith teaches us that ultimately there is only one authority and that is Jesus the Christ.
Once we have discerned true authority then we need to question that authority again and again so we might plumb the depths of this mystery of God's presence in our lives. That is the only way that we can fulfill our responsibility to teach with true authority, to be able to say authentically what we proclaim in the baptismal liturgy: We have put on Christ, in him we have been baptized.
Some have asked me whether I am questioning the teaching authority of the magesterium in this homily. The answer is emphatically no. I thought this was implicit in the comment on St. Paul's mistaken analysis of the activity of those who are married. The teaching authority of the church was needed to resist Paul's incorrect analysis.
What is not so easy to articulate is my growing understanding of how this teaching authority is supposed to work. It becomes clearer and clearer to me as I learn more that the current hierarchical structure of the Church as a top down pyramid of power, control, and access to God is wrong. Rather than access to God having to filter down through layers of clerical importance, the pyramid needs to be turned upside down so that the pope, and bishops, and other clergy, and in fact all ministries in the church, are underneath the people of God helping to lift them closer to God directly. Those who would be the greatest must serve the many.
The point I was trying to make in this homily is that the teaching charism of the magisterium is not a top down function. I believe it is meant to function very much like Jesus' authority as described in the Gospels. His authority requires the faith of the people to be effective. When he was in his own home town, he was unable, yes powerless, to perform miracles because of the lack of faith on the part of the people. In other words, his authority to cast out demons and cure illness did not work because the people were not doing their part. I believe the same is true of the authority of the Church in its relationship to the people. Without the active faith of the baptised, the authority of the Church just does not work. It cannot work. Current events certainly give strong evidence in support of this way of looking at things.
The conclusion I come to is not to look first to the magisterium for any correction to the ills that plague the Church today but to look first to the baptised. When there are more Catholics who are authentically living out their baptism than there are dissidents trying to destroy the church, or apathetic Catholics drifting through their lives unaware of their baptismal commitments, or patriachalists trying to box the Spirit into a rigid set of rules, the Church will start to heal. But not before.