No one wants to talk about authority these days. We especially prize freedom, and we proclaim our right to be free from constraints of all sorts. It is bad to be considered authoritarian. In our age of contextual relativity, we prefer no hard lines. Rules are meant to be bent. Everything is cool.
And yet one of the most pressing human questions is, “What should I do?” Day after day we face one decision after another, some of them small, some of them large. What should I do in my daily habits, in my finances, in my relationships, in politics, as a parent, as a care giver?
“What should I do?” brings us face to face with moral authority. In times of relativity, real moral authority is hard to find. Now authority is not the ability to control other people or events. That is power. Authority comes from the word author. It is getting grounded again in basic principles so that we can make the decisions we need and then act on them both alone and in groups. It is becoming connected again with the author of life. And it equips a person authoring her life one chapter at a time.
The readings today take us into the nature of such moral authority. The first and third readings suggest approaches to authority. I’d like to spend some time with those. Then the second reading provides a test case using authority to make a decision.
Let’s begin with the third reading from Mark. This reading begins Jesus’ ministry with healing. But notice that the reading quickly focuses the attention of the reader on the question of authority. Authority in the community of Mark has become something different than in the Jewish synagogue where the congregation probably started.
A couple of things might be said about the ancient congregation responsible for Mark. It was an urban congregation in a large city in the Roman Empire, perhaps Rome itself. Life is intense and fast. Things happen immediately. It began in the Jewish synagogue, but moved beyond that space fairly quickly as it embraced more and more gentiles.
The congregation focused on caring for the sick, something that was rarely done in Roman cities. The sick were abandoned for fear of contagion. But caring for the sick or healing is a priority in this particular urban congregation just as shelter work and emergency relief is our priority at St. Johns.
The building housing the congregation probably looked more like a field hospital rather than a church with sick people everywhere being cared for in every available corner. The church was perhaps overwhelmed by the needs of the sick and did not want to broadly advertise what they did, sometimes being even secretive about their healing center.
So these people remember Jesus primarily as a healer. In the book of Mark in the thirteen chapters it takes to get to his last week of life, there are seventeen healing encounters. Every time you turn around Jesus is healing. By contrast, in Luke, written later, there are still sixteen or seventeen healing encounters, but it takes twenty-one chapters to cover the same ground. Jesus becomes much more of a story teller and teacher. That’s even more the case in Matthew who also has about sixteen or seventeen healing encounters. But now there are almost twice as many chapters as Mark. Jesus has long sermons and complex arguments with his opponents. And in John there are only four healing encounters and Jesus just talks on and on. But in Mark, in this version of the life of Jesus, he is primarily one who heals. Healing is important to these people.
We know that when people are sick, if they are cared for, they are more likely to recover. Care, no matter what that care is, often assists in the healing process, and increases the chances that the person will get better, quicker. There are no miracles to this except the miracle of tender compassion and the way the body works. But the miracle of healing was what this congregation accomplished for many people. And they did it by simply caring for those who were ill rather than abandoning them. So their memory of Jesus recalled Jesus as healer whose death even brought the healing of the universe.
Now if you are such a congregation, you will have many issues and things to decide. How do we care for the sick? Where shall we place them? How shall we feed them? What shall we do? This question is asked over and over as mission is constructed.
So in the church of Mark, questions of moral authority become important. And it is very interesting how they described authority in this particular passage. Authority, moral authority, is grounded in healing. The basic principle by which we guide our lives is healing, that which brings wholeness and health and reconciliation of body and soul. That is the authority of the church of Mark. And healing is still a wonderful authoritative principle for living. Do you wonder what you should do? Well, what would be the most healing thing? Do that.
Now the first reading from Deuteronomy points to an authoritative prophet. And when we read this, the assumption often is that this person will come in the distant future and that this is somehow a reference to Jesus. But I don’t think that’s the case. Deuteronomy is about something completely different than Jesus. But it also focused on authority. And it is helpful to attend to Deuteronomy’s approach to authority, because healing (as wonderful as it is) is sometimes not particularly useful as a principle to decide at least some things.
In the center of the book Deuteronomy out of which chapter 18 comes, a story is being re-told about Moses. This story is used to lay out principles for founding a new nation. Around chapters 10 or 11, the story teller (who is really a lawyer) begins talking about the principles, rules, and regulations needed to re-start a nation after it has suffered defeat, using the memories of Moses, wandering around the wilderness, and coming to the promised land.
These are constitutional chapters providing the authority needed to found or rebuild a community based on the principles of God. The basic principles are perhaps best summarized in chapter 10: hold fast to your faith, don’t forget your humble roots, treat the widows, orphans, strangers, and those in need with compassion, and go to church.
And then there are several chapters of guidelines regarding life together: don’t worship idols, some foods are unclean – don’t eat them, (by the way, all of us in Wisconsin might rejoice that the eating of badger meat is prohibited in chapter 14.) There are rules for tithing, sacrifices, the calendar year, livestock management, how to celebrate festivals, the harvest time, municipal judges, legal decisions and court procedures, the prohibition of child sacrifice and magic, the creation of cities of refuge, property boundaries, witnesses in a trial, how to conduct a war, a criminal code of sorts, wills and estates, how to treat captives, rebellious children, family life, incest, how to handle sewage, divorce, and disputes between farmers, along with many other things.
In the middle of all the rules and regulations comes this prophet or judge-like figure whose purpose is to decide all those things not covered in the rulebook. What we have is the creation of that office of legal prophet or authority for the community – a decider with authority to make the decisions when something needs to be decided, not already covered in the rules and regulations. This person is to be somewhat like Moses, and must above all be true to the principles upon which the community is founded, or the person is to be put to death and another person is to be selected. They don’t mess around in Deuteronomy.
Now regrettably the lectionary people cut off the passage at verse 20. Verses 21 and 22 are probably the most important for this prophet figure. For they say, how do we know if the prophet is any good? And verse 22 is the amazing answer. It is ancient, primitive, pragmatism. If it works, then it’s a good decision. If it doesn’t work, well, it isn’t a good decision.
Now think about things and the decisions we all need to make in our lives. The community of Mark is reminding us, that in matters of moral authority and ethics, the Jewish synagogue is a good place to start. But remember to guide your life by doing the most healing thing.
And then Deuteronomy also reminds us that the tradition provides us principles and insights. But that often someone, the author, or the individual needs to decide. The rule book only goes so far. And when the individual is making a decision, authoring a way to be, then the most important thing is to be true to the principles and to do what actually works.
Between Deuteronomy and Mark is perhaps all the authority we really need as we navigate these turbulent times. Let’s see how that works in our test case regarding the eating of meat offered to idols in the second reading. In ancient Corinth, all meat was sold at the farmer’s market. To sell at the market, you had to offer some of the meat to the emperor. It was a technical sacrifice but more of a tax on the merchants really. The question is: should we eat meat offered to the emperor or not? For we worship Jesus not the emperor.
How does Paul address this moral question? First he thinks about it, gives it careful consideration and creates an argument, not a fight between two people, but a rabbinical argument or line of reasoning. He reasons, that in the end it’s alright to eat the meat. Go ahead if you want to. It’s not going to kill you. You have that right, he might say. It really doesn’t matter.
And then he shifts gears. For some people this may be big deal. And it’s not worth it to Paul to offend those people just to prove his point. He’ll just abstain, out of respect for those who might disagree. All expressions may be legal, but not all may be helpful.
Here we can see how his authority is grounded in the healing of controversy. How it is grounded in the tradition and yet moves beyond it. How as an individual he authors a new way to approach the a new problem. And how practical the solution is.
What shall I do? We all wonder about what we should do or how we should proceed. Should we drink alcohol in the presence of those for whom it is the source of great sorrow? Should we refrain from offending Muslims even if we have the right of free speech? Should we press our political point at the thanksgiving table with our relatives whose opinions we know are all wrong or is it time to bring healing? Over and over again, we wonder what we should do. And today’s readings lift up the authority we need to author practical solutions to the dilemmas of our lives.