We are still 10 months from the election, but already I am sick of it. I don’t care to know about the millions of dollars it takes to run a successful campaign because that only makes me realize that the outcome doesn’t matter all that much: the rich will always win at the expense of the poor, and that the majority of voters lack the will to make things any different than the way they are. What I do care about, however, is the people lining up on both ends of the political spectrum, implying that they somehow speak for God. Whether it’s increasing spending on social services and raising taxes on the wealthy or seeking bans on gay marriage and abortions under the guise of “religious liberty”, people across the political spectrum are trying to invoke God’s blessing on their cause.
So, how do we discern who is really speaking for God? Does anyone carry this much authority? Two of our readings today offer insight on this very question. In Deuteronomy we find Moses’ words and in Mark’s Gospel we find Jesus’ words—definitely the two heavy hitters within the Judeo-Christian heritage. If we look at their words and deeds, maybe we can find some guidance on the question of who speaks for God.
The first reading records some of Moses’ final words to the people of Israel. Moses has, of course, been God’s representative to the Israelites for some time, and it has been evident to all that God is speaking through him. It was, after all, Moses who invoked the plagues on the Egyptians and led his people to freedom. It was Moses who led them through the Reed Sea, who struck the rock in the desert which provided them with water, and it was Moses who received the tablets of the Law from God. But, like all of us, Moses is getting older and more feeble. He knows that he will not survive to enter the Promised Land, and the people want to know who will speak God’s word to them after he is gone. This is the context for the first reading..
Moses tells the people not to worry. He assures them, “God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet.”(v. 15) This makes it clear that Israel will never be without knowledge of God’s will for them as a people. In the days immediately following Moses’ death, the people had recourse to the Law that had been given by Moses’ hand: they could easily compare the sayings of any prophet with the Law they already knew, and determine if the prophetic statement was credible or not.
Today, we have a far larger set of documents to which we can compare similar claims. We still have the Law of Moses, but we also have the writings of the many prophets who came after him: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, Hosea and so on. Most importantly, we also have Jesus who is the ultimate revelation of God. So anything said by someone who suggests that he or she speaks for God must be measured against the ministry and teachings of Jesus. Is what they say consistent with Jesus or not?
The Gospel reading today presents Jesus at the very beginning of his public ministry. Jesus has just called his first disciples, and they are preparing the first big public event of Jesus’ new career: teaching on the Sabbath in the synagogue at Capernaum. Mark tells us twice in this short periscope that people are amazed because Jesus is teaching “with authority” and not like the scribes. We don’t know what Jesus is preaching about, we don’t know if he was using the common lectionary of his day, we don’t even know if he prepared his material in advance.
The point of the story is that the authority of Jesus is found in his actions, not in his words. Jesus doesn’t just come to the synagogue and talk about the Reign of God because the scribes themselves were pretty good at that. They loved to debate various theoretical and legal fine points, but if their debating ever transformed someone’s life we are never told of it. Jesus is different because he doesn’t just speak in theoretical terms, he brings his message to a concrete example by healing the man with the disability. Jesus acts to free the man from the bondage that has kept him from being who he was meant to be.
The authority with which Jesus impresses the crowd comes from his authoritative ministry, which is not to be confused with authoritarian ministry. The religious institutions of Jesus’ time acted as religious institutions have always acted and as they still act today: they mandated hundreds of rules and regulations and insisted that others obey them, claiming that they alone spoke for God. It’s not that these men were bad any more than their modernday equivalents are bad. But behaving in authoritarian modalities is what all institutions devolve into once they lose sight of their real purpose. Then, as now, those who failed to live up to the ordinances were required to do penance before they could again engage in the public rituals of their faith communities.
Jesus, on the other hand, wasn’t a part of the establishment and he didn’t have any formal theological training. Instead of presenting laws, he told stories. And instead of punishing or judging, he brought forgiveness and healing to people who were hurting. He rejected the notion that someone’s illness is a result of their sin.(John 9:1-3) He dismissed the idea that people suffer tragedies because of their guilt. (Luke 13:2-5)
Jesus expected his disciples to carry on his ministry in the same way he had exercised it, but for various reasons, that is not what happened. For one thing, his disciples never thought they would die of old age before He returned in glory. For another thing, no one could have foreseen the huge vacuum left in the world once the Roman Empire collapsed in 467, leaving the Church as the only organization in all of Europe with any structure and order.
Over the years, as the church became more established and institutionalized, this authoritative leadership began to shift to a more authoritarian model. Eventually, there was little distinction between the political authority of the kings and princes and the spiritual authority of the popes and priests. We all know the shameful parts of our history, so clearly we have come to see that not everyone who is in ministry is really doing Jesus’ will. Today, many of us react strongly against authoritarian models of church leadership which seem to pay lip service to Jesus, while only furthering other agendas. My brothers in ministry, Fr. Marek and Fr. Lawman both have joined with me in declaring our parishes “mitre-free zones” and although this is meant to be semi-humorous, the truth is that all three of us have become somewhat jaded on the subject of bishops.
In rejecting authoritarianism we have become very hesitant to recognize the authority of anyone. We have to remind ourselves that even as we reject authoritarian models of church, we must remain open to authoritative persons who just might have a word from God for us. Jesus himself does not reject all authority and neither does he do away with leadership. He was not authoritarian, but that is not to say that he doesn’t want us to replace bad leadership models with good ones. That is precisely the challenge going on in all the denominations right now, as numbers of adherents continues to plummet, as the number of Catholics going to weekly Mass has dropped another 10 percent in only one year.
The answer is not for everyone to just “shut up and come home” so that the old models of leadership can resume doing what they have always done. What we need is to create new models of leadership–models that establish clear lines of authority within an overall structure of mutual accountability; models that balance the concept of the priesthood of all believers with the notion of a special calling to certain offices of ministry; models that reflect the paradox that whoever wishes to be great must be a servant, and whoever wishes to be first must be a servant to all (Mark 10:43-44).
In the final analysis, neither Republicans nor Democrats, neither liberals nor conservatives can claim to know for certain what God is saying to the Church today. This much is clear: what we need are fewer leaders like the politicians and the clergy, and more leaders like Jesus. What we need are fewer people who are convinced that they know what God wants other people to do, and more people willing to do the actual work of listening to the will of God for them expressed in their inmost being. Ongoing conversion to Christ is our salvation, and trying to live a Christ-centered life is the key to a successful parish, a life that is stable, and a leadership model that truly expresses the love of God for all people.