4th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Cathedral of Mary Our Queen
January 30, 2021
Today, our Scripture readings raise up the question of God’s authority: how God exercised authority and how he has shared it with us over time. In this homily, I would like to focus on this theme of God’s authority, in the hope that we would gain insight about how we should exercise authority, whether at home, or at work, or in the Church. And there are at least two good reasons why we should do this: First is to help us imitate God in our use of authority; Second is to help us understand what authentic authority is at a time when our culture regards all authority with skepticism. What, then, can we glean from today’s Scripture readings?
The Authority of the Prophets
In the Book of Deuteronomy, the people begged Moses to ask God for a prophet, for they were frightened by the experience of God’s direct communication with them. Moses did make this request and God granted it, but with the following condition: God would place his own Word in the mouth of the prophet. If the prophet’s words were true to God’s Word, then the people were obliged to heed the prophet’s words. But if the prophet’s words were merely his own opinions or preferences, then the people were not obligated to follow what he said … and the prophet who would speak falsely put his own life at risk. The authority of the prophets, then, resided in their obedience to the Word of God.
Many a prophet lived up to the vocation God gave them. They spoke his Word to the people, despite ridicule and martyrdom. And their mission, often carried out in the direst of situations, was always aligned with God’s mission – God’s unwavering desire to save people from their sins and to bring them into the orbit of his friendship.
The Authority of Jesus
In today’s reading from St. Mark’s Gospel, Jesus, after preaching in a synagogue, rebuked and expelled an unclean spirit from a tormented man. Though meek and mild, Jesus had authority over Satan and all unclean spirits, and he used his authority to free that tormented man from their grasp. This caused the people to exclaim, “What is this? A new teaching with authority. He commands even unclean spirits and they obey him.”
Although those people did not understand who Jesus was, they knew he was for real. Indeed, even before Jesus worked a miracle, people were spellbound by his teaching. His words were powerful because he practiced what he preached. His words penetrated their hearts. He spoke frankly, courageously, and honestly. His words were devoid of hairsplitting legalities. There was no trace of self-interest in what Jesus said, no hidden agenda of his own. Later on, when Jesus was teaching in the temple area, some of the leaders of the people challenged his credentials – for he had not studied under any of the noted rabbinical authorities of his day. In answer to their challenge, Jesus simply said: “My teaching is not my own but is from the One who sent me” (Jn 7:16). Jesus, the living Word of God, spoke only what the Father commanded him to speak. Thus, at Jesus’ Baptism and again at the Transfiguration, God the Father spoke: “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him!”
And for what purpose did Jesus exercise the authority given him by the Father? He used it to speak the “truth in love”, as St. Paul would later say. He used it to open minds and hearts to the Father’s immense love. He manifested his authority by healing the sick, forgiving sins, and raising the dead. And while Jesus’ authority over sin and death was revealed in his miracles, it was revealed most powerfully on the Cross, that uniquely salvific moment, when ‘Christ freely laid down his life for us and freely took it up again’ (cf. Jn 10:18). It was in obeying his Father’s saving will and in making himself the servant of us all, that Jesus manifested his true authority over the furious forces of sin and death. Thus does the Incarnate Son of God claim our undivided allegiance!
Our Exercise of Authority
Now, if we wish to exercise authority better or even to respond to it better, then, let us take to heart what the Word of God has said to us today. After all, we do find ourselves exercising authority to one degree or another, perhaps as parents, teachers, supervisors, or even as pastors of souls. All of us command a degree of authority by the example we set. … So, if we are striving to follow the Lord, what should our exercise of authority be like? Let me suggest that our use of authority should be characterized by four qualities, and perhaps upon reflection, you will think of others qualities.
The first quality for the worthy exercise of authority is an authentic striving for virtue. We are not as good or holy as Jesus or one of the heroic OT prophets, but we should be aware that our example precedes our words and our decisions. As St. Charles Borromeo reminded the priests of his diocese in the 16th century, ‘If people see you are preaching one thing and doing another, they will scoff.’ That was true then and it is true now – and not only for clergy but also for all of us. When we live the truth, then we can speak the truth – lovingly but unvarnished.
A second quality is a profound sense of alignment with God’s purposes. Why has God entrusted any authority at all to us fallible human beings? For what purpose does God want us to exercise whatever kind of authority we have? The true answer is – for our salvation and for the salvation of those we interact with. If we exercise authority with deep awareness of God’s saving love for each person, and with a desire to discern how that love might manifest itself in the here and now – then, our words, our demeanor, and quality of our decisions may well change. Our first impulse must not be to condemn, embarrass, or banish, but rather to be agents of help and healing, who seek to bring out the best in others. After all, the Lord has dealt most mercifully with each of us.
A third quality for the wise exercise of leadership is a sense of stewardship. Recall that the prophets and Jesus himself spoke only what the Father had commanded. Often, Jesus reflected on his oneness with the Father and obedience to his will. If we would exercise real leadership and authority, we too must be close to the Lord. We must listen to his Word so that our words would reflect his Word. We must seek to be disciples of the Lord rather than independent contractors. We are, after all, stewards of what God has given us, not the owners. For example, we do not own our children; they are gifts God has entrusted to us, and our first priority should be their eternal salvation. I am not the owner of the Archdiocese but a steward of God’s People. What’s more, I am to be a good and faithful steward, who acts uprightly, even when I may think no one, including the Lord, is observing.
A fourth and final quality I will mention is – sacrificial love. Jesus claims our undivided allegiance because he, the Son of God made man, laid down his life for us on the Cross and continues his Sacrifice of love in the Mass. When our daily lives and example reflect Jesus’ self-giving love – not only by our dedication to the work at hand but also by our love for others – chances are that our suggestions, decisions, and directives will carry more weight – whether in the family circle, at work, or within the family of the Church.
At a time when authority in just about every sector of life is under scrutiny, let us ask the Holy Spirit to inspire and strength us to follow Jesus in his obedience of the Father and in his authority over the forces of evil. And may God bless us and keep us always in his love!