Fathers' Day, and Eleventh Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A
Text: Exodus 19:1-6, Romans 5:6-11, Matthew 9:36-10:8
When I looked at these readings, the first thing that struck me was that when Jesus sent out the Twelve to cast out unclean spirits, and cure diseases and sicknesses, he didn’t give them “power,” but rather he gave them “authority.” I did a bit of research, and found that the original Greek clearly distinguishes between “power,” “dunameis,” (δυνάμεις) and “authority,” “exousia” (ἐξουσία). Greek is a remarkably precise language, well-suited for expressing nuanced ideas, so this distinction is meaningful, and bears closer examination. What is power and what is authority? That is the main question that I want to explore today.
In simple, ordinary terms, power is the capacity to effect change, and authority is the right to do so. How these two things are related is a fundamental philosophical and spiritual question, and is intimately connected with how we are to live our lives. Our understanding of that, as individuals and as community, evolves as we mature.
In the Book of Exodus, this distinction is not clear, and authority is a natural consequence of power. God’s power is reason enough for the people of Israel to worship him, and he instructs Moses to remind the people of his action on their behalf. Moses is to call them to trust his covenant and keep his commands so that God’s demonstrated power will reward them. Power and authority, in this most primitive view, are one and the same.
In the letter to the Romans, Paul explains how Christ’s sacrifice changes that view forever. There is no greater powerlessness in the world than death, especially the slow, inexorable suffocation of death on a cross, and yet Christ’s authority was undiminished—indeed, was made perfect—by his crucifixion. The crowds mocked him, telling him to come down from the cross if he was really the messiah, but he forsook his divine power and accepted that his authority be unrecognized by us sinners until his return, resurrected and triumphant.
As I see it, the difference is expressed in the opening lines of the Gospel: “When Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”1 Since true authority comes from God, who confers all rights, and since God is love, all real authority is loving and compassionate. Authority offers help where there is need, but does not compel by threat or punishment. The Apostles who received Jesus’ authority were to go out to the Israelites and offer their work, but not impose their teaching on anyone. This is a dictum which we, as a missionary parish, are especially called to live out, and which our priests have so often taught through word and deed. Reading further in the passage, the Apostles are warned that they will often not be well-received, and that they are to do no more than shake the dust of towns that chase them away from their feet; anything more would be according to God’s judgment.
I came to appreciate this view of authority in a new way in my work over the past few years. At my company, I was initially hired as a scientist, but there were a number of tasks which weren’t part of my formal area of responsibility which nevertheless needed doing. Since nobody else was inclined to or had time to do them, I took them on, and since they were mostly administrative and organizational work, I gradually acquired the formal authority that these tasks generally involve.
A different kind of power comes from this authority, and though it may be hidden, it is the greater power. Indeed, there are only two sources of power: divine authority, and the power that we claimed when Adam and Eve ate of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. This latter is the source of worldly power, which we often mistake for authority. It is a loud, brash thing, having its roots in pride, and rather than humbly accepting the primacy of God’s will, it will fight harder and harder against anything that would resist it, heedlessly destroying whatever stands in its way. Against real authority, though, it spends itself like the storm against the house built on the rock. Two weeks ago, Father Richard spoke about the right to forgiveness, to which Paul makes allusion in today’s reading, saying that “we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, [and so] we even boast in God.”2 It is this authority that gives mercy rather than demanding sacrifice, and by submitting to it, we gain what is more precious than any power on Earth. This generosity is the sign of God’s authority as distinguished from the jealous, grasping quality of worldly power. In this context, it is fitting that tomorrow/today is Fathers’ Day. The image of God as Father, who wields perfect authority to help us grow in love, is extrapolated from our common childhood experience, and can therefore connect deeply to our subconscious.
Having considered what power and authority are, I want to talk (very briefly!) about our response to authority, which is obedience. Obedience is the relinquishing of the power claimed in the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil: the recognition that we are fulfilled and made whole only when we submit to God’s will. That will may be communicated to us through many means, including Scripture, doctrine, other people’s wisdom and the Holy Spirit’s voice within each of us, and an important part of our spiritual work is to discern it in our lives. By this obedience, which imitates Christ’s, we participate in his sacrifice, and are, as Paul writes, “justified by his blood” and “saved by his life.”3 It is through obedience and service, not through pride and power, that we ourselves gain authority, participating in God’s work and living as God’s people, the flock of the Lord. When we live this call to obedience, we act in God’s name, and the sign of it is this: our every word, every action, every choice is made carefully and with compassion, and reflects our heavenly Father’s forgiving, nurturing love.
1: Matthew 9:36
2: Romans 5:10-11
3: Romans 5:9-10