Teaching With Authority
Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time (B) | Archbishop Malcolm McMahon OP reflects on the challenge of teaching with authority in a world that is sceptical of authority.
Some years ago, I took a group of children to the maze at Hampton Court. Needless to say it was a chaotic and fun-filled day, but I had trouble gathering them all together when it was time to go home. I called them with little response. I kept on shouting but to little avail. I was obviously not speaking with authority. A passer-by laughing at my dilemma came out with the unhelpful remark, ‘One word from you, and they do what they like!’
That little story may well describe the life of a bishop in the church today. It certainly seems like that at times. But it does illustrate that authority comes from establishing a relationship of mutual respect, and I do that in my ministry in Liverpool by gradually unfolding the scriptures so that the God of truth, from whom all authority comes, lives in us. It is a slow process which doesn’t always answer our need for instant results and action in this fast, busy world.
Speaking with authority is something that is missing these days. It would seem that it is impossible to believe anything without checking it first. Nobody is taken at their word and nobody is believed on their own authority; neither politician nor doctor, teacher nor priest.
We live in a society which is deeply sceptical. Why this scepticism has arisen could be blamed on an increase in general education, availability of information on the internet and a culture that encourages negative criticism rather than thoughtful comment. But for whatever reason it results in an inability to trust others, and not to believe what we read and hear – it is all just so much noise. Donald Trump is not the only one who doesn’t believe what is put out on the news media. Most people will only believe that which they can prove for themselves.
Worse than that, some put feelings before facts and will accept that which concurs with how they feel about something, and for them that will be the truth. I find this very worrying as I know from experience that I cannot always trust my feelings. One of the questions that is often put to me by children when I visit schools is, ‘What does it feel like to be a bishop?’ Of course, these children are not asking me about my welfare, what they are really asking is, ‘What is it like’, meaning, ‘what do I do and say?’
But don’t think I am against feelings. They play a very valuable part in establishing the truth about a pastoral or relationship problem. So, when Jesus speaks with authority, we know him to be a man of compassion, but he doesn’t replace facts by feelings. In banishing an unclean spirit from the possessed man Jesus is restoring that man to a fuller life, and enabling him to take his place in his community. When Jesus shows that he has an authority greater than the scribes and the unclean spirits he is bringing forth the mercy of his Father from whom his authority comes.
For the Jewish people Moses was the supreme authority yet in the reading from the book of Deuteronomy that we have been given today even Moses prophesies that there will be raised up someone like himself and God will put his words into his mouth and he shall tell them all that I command him. So, Jesus’ listeners would have recognised him as the fulfilment of this prophecy. The authority of the scribes was based on the Law of Moses and this would now be superseded by one who has authority directly from God – in fact, by the one who was the author of the Law. This amazing revelation is followed up by the banishing of the unclean spirit. It is obvious that Jesus not only has authority but the power that goes with it. But that power is different from our general understanding of the word. It is the power of mercy and love which heals and serves and forgives our sins; not a power which dominates and oppresses.
If we are to speak with authority with the power of God and to be listened to, and trusted then this God-given authority must be backed up by merciful action, otherwise it will be empty of love. If we are to teach and preach a meaningful message in this day and age which is suspicious of all authority then what we say has not only has to be well reasoned and correct factually but it has to be demonstrated by the way we live and act. Teaching with authority cannot be cold and heartless but must touch deeply those who hear so that they come closer to the Author of their own lives.
Photograph by Fr Lawrence Lew OP of the apse of the Basilica of Santa Sabina in Rome.