Authority’s a strange commodity, isn’t it? To borrow a line from the late Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart: I might not be able to define it, but I know it when I see it.
Yes, you see it when the deputy fills your review mirror with that flashing light; you pull over and stop. You accept the authority granted to him by the citizens of Sumter County who voted his boss into office.
|Authority in your rear-view mirror|
But if my U. S. senator had called and ordered me to fly some mission, I’d have to tell him, “Sorry, Senator, I know you’re an important guy, but you’re a legislator. You’re not in my chain of command.” In the same way you wouldn’t feel obligated to stop if the mailman pulled up behind you and flashed his lights. All authority has its limits, doesn’t it? Well, all human authority has limits.
In today’s Gospel passage from Mark, we find Jesus approached by some very important people: “the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders” [Mk 11:27]. Quite a group, brimming over with all kinds of authority; probably a contingent sent by the Sanhedrin, the Jews’ supreme religious authority. And what did they want?
|Who gave you this authority?|
They wanted to know how Jesus could speak with such authority, especially since He wasn’t one of them. Who gave you this authority? We certainly didn’t.
It’s interesting that in all three synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke – we find the people remarking that Jesus “taught them as one having authority, but not as their scribes” [Mt 11:29]. Do you think that, maybe, the scribes had heard these comments? A little resentment, perhaps a touch of jealousy?
Jesus, not yet willing to reveal Himself fully, like a good rabbi, responds to their question with a question. If they can answer His question, He’ll answer theirs. And then He asks them, “Was John’s baptism of heavenly or of human origin?” [Mk 11:30]
Did you notice their little discussion? They weigh the likely results of the two possible replies, but they never discuss simply answering the question truthfully. Truth is never an option when sin enters the human heart.
“We do not know” [Mk 11:33], they finally say – a dishonest response, a selfish, face-saving response. And so Jesus tells them nothing of His authority.
Jesus’ answer to their question will come later when He ultimately reveals the source and extent of his authority. Indeed, we receive this revelation in the words spoken by Jesus immediately before He ascends to the Father. They’re the very last verses of Matthew’s Gospel:
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the close of the age” [Mt 28:18-20].
What are we to make of this?
First of all: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” And the source? Why it's the Trinity itself, from Father, Son and Holy Spirit. You will baptize all nations on earth in their name.
All those people who had heard Jesus and marveled at His authority recognized that it was something special. And indeed it was. It came from within Him, from His intimate relationship with Father and Spirit.
But what kind of authority? “All authority in heaven and on earth...” That pretty much covers the waterfront, doesn’t it? Jesus is telling us that His authority knows no bounds, but He’s also reminding us that all human authority has its source in Him. How did the psalmist put it?
“You have given him rule over the works of your hands, put all things at his feet” [Ps 8:7].The human authorities in Jerusalem didn’t remember that their limited authority came from God. Let’s pray that those in power today recognize the true source of their authority.
And today, as we honor the Blessed Mother on this last Saturday of May, we should realize that she certainly recognized the full authority of her Son. The last words Mary speaks in the Bible sum it up well: “Do whatever He tells you” [Jn 2:5] -- no limits, no exceptions.
Let's pray today that these words of Mary move us and move the world to accept the authority of Jesus Christ.