by Rev. Elizabeth Rawlings
By what authority do you do these things?
Authority is a prime question of our time.
To whom do we give authority? Why?
Whose authority do we question? Why?
Why is this important?
To have authority means one has power.
Philosopher and sociologist Max Weber wrote of three kinds of authority:
He also denoted a difference between legitimate power -- power people accept as right -- and illegitimate power -- power people do not accept as just.
(This is really over-simplified and there is a better -- and longer but not too long -- summary here: https://courses.lumenlearning.com/boundless-sociology/chapter/politics-power-and-authority/)
The word used here, translated as authority, is exousia.
Exousia connotes BOTH power and authority/ the power of authority. In this context, the chief priests and the elders aren’t curious, they’re angry and jealous (note the difference between jealousy and envy, the former wants to take away what another has). By way of a question, they are attempting to point out that Jesus has no authority. They have authority by virtue of both what Weber would call traditional authority and legal-rational authority. Their power, for some, is legitimate, for some (including Jesus), it could be seen as illegitimate.
Jesus’ authority is charismatic but his power doesn’t fit into Weber’s schema of power. His power comes from God.
We have a lot of questions these days about authority and power. Who has what authority? How did they get it? Who has what power? Where does it come from? What do we do when power and authority are being abused? When power has been gained illegitimately (or is seen that way, at any rate)? Whose authority do we obey? To whose power do we submit?
As Christians, we, in theory, submit to the power of God. We hand ourselves over to God even unto death. We obey God’s authority in the same manner. In theory. But so frequently we are the son who says we will go into the field, we say we will submit to God’s authority, but we do not. We get drawn away by the other powers and authorities of our time. We get seduced by the shiny things, the comfort, the stability empire has to offer (at least has to offer for those not living on the margins). We submit to power and authority that actively harms our brothers and sisters because it doesn’t bother us, or because it looks better if we do that, or because we prefer a world that is calm but unjust as opposed to a world in upheaval that is working towards justice. Or we submit to the powers and authority of the world because our faith is weak and we trust people in uniforms to keep us safe and provide for us instead of trusting God.
To whom do we submit? The authority of Christ or the authority of empire? Do we say we will obey Christ and the not follow?
It is up to us as preachers to continually draw contrasts between empire and Christ. It is part of our call as leaders in Christ to ask ourselves and out people who they are following, and where the authority to which they submit comes from. We must continually poke and prod our people back under God’s authority, living in God’s power and away from the seductive power and authority of Empire.