As a child, I had many discussions about authority with my brother and sisters. These were not deeply philosophical discussions about the true nature of authority but rather they were most always a challenge to the rightful claim of authority. The challenge usually took the form of a questioning of authority: “Who made you the boss of me?” The most common claim to authority was age. I am older than you and so I have authority over you. Most often my older sister was appointed to be “in charge” and so she could claim a delegated authority. That authority seemed a little too arbitrary to me and I soon took up another common claim to authority and challenged her with the claim, “I’m bigger and stronger than you.” Claiming the authority of superior strength always seemed to end up in a fight. This claim to authority was usually accompanied with the challenge: “You can’t make me.” I have to admit that I really wasn’t working on my cause for sainthood at the time.
As we go through life we struggle with claims to authority. A claim to authority most always comes with the obligation that we have to obey that authority. We are not always comfortable with those who claim authority over us. Authority needs to rest on more than a mere claim. Others need to recognize and respect the authority that a person is entrusted with. Authority is the foundation of leadership. A true leader carries their authority with a humble grace and exercises that authority responsibly for the common good. Many of the problems that we face in our world today come down to a struggle with authority. Who has a rightful claim to authority? Who can rightfully command our obedience? Who has the authority to make the rules? We often think that freedom gives us the license to rule ourselves. Today we hear many people who want to do away with delegated authority. This most often expresses itself in civil disobedience. We appoint ourselves as judge and jury of our own affairs.
One would think that God, the Father of all creation, would have the greatest claim of all to authority. However, there are many people who do not recognize the authority of God. Accepting God’s authority requires faith. The authority of God calls for the response of an obedience of faith from all. Many people experience God as being absent and they don’t accept the authority of someone who is absent. More and more today we see people dismissing the existence of God altogether and divorcing themselves from all claims to the authority of God.
God sends his Son, Jesus, into the world to establish his authority, to proclaim his kingdom. In Jesus, the authority of God is made visible to us in a new way, more powerful than kings, priests and prophets of old (all legitimate positions of authority). The Father gives to his Son the fullness of his power and authority. Jesus tells his apostles, “All power 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.” (Mt 29,18-20) He prays to the Father at the Last Supper, “Father, the hour has come. Give glory to your son, so that your son may glorify you, just as you gave him authority over all people, so that he may give eternal life to all you gave him. Now this is eternal life, that they should know you, the only true God, and the one whom you sent, Jesus Christ.” (Jn 17,1-3) He answers his detractors, “That you may know that the Son of man possesses authority on earth to forgive sins (he said to the sick of palsy), I say to you, “Arise, take up your bed, and go to your house”” (Mk. 2:10). He answers Pilate, “You would have no power over me if it had not been given to you from above.” (Jn 19,11)
Jesus has been given true authority by the Father. He has authority on earth and in heaven. The authority of Jesus is the authority of love and truth. The people that followed Jesus recognized that he exercised authority in a new and exciting way. His was not a dubious claim to authority but a true demonstration of power and authority that flowed from a Spirit of love and truth. The people saw in Jesus a new authority, “The people were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, not like the scribes…”What is this? A new teaching with authority. He commands even the unclean spirits and they obey him.” (Mk 1,22;27)
Jesus passes on his authority to his apostles and so to the Church: “He summoned the Twelve and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal the sick.” (Luke 9,1f) The person of Jesus and his presence in the Church is a witness to true authority. It is given as St. Paul says, “made known to all nations to bring about the obedience of faith.” (Rom 16,26) Jesus has established his authority, now he awaits our response in the obedience of faith. Do we have a problem with that?