4th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Patronal Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas
St. Thomas Aquinas, Hampden
January 31, 2021
Today, the Scripture readings speak of God’s authority: how God exercised authority and how he has shared it with us over time. In this homily, I wish to focus on this theme of God’s authority, in the hope that we would all gain insight about how we should exercise authority, whether at home, at school, at work, or in the Church. Let me add that 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. How do today’s Scriptures and the life and example of St. Thomas shed light on authority?
The Authority of the Prophets
In the Book of Deuteronomy, the people begged Moses to ask God for a prophet, for their experience of being in direct communication with God frightened them. Moses conveyed their request and God granted it, but with the following condition: God would place his Word in the mouth of the prophet. When the prophet’s spoke as God commanded, the people were obliged to obey. But if the prophet’s spoke falsely, the prophet 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. Despite ridicule and martyrdom, they spoke God’s Word to the people. Their mission, often carried out in the dire situations, was always aligned with God’s mission to save his people from their sins.
The Authority of Jesus
In today’s reading from St. Mark’s Gospel, Jesus 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 the people did not understand who Jesus was, they knew he was for real. His teaching held them spellbound. His words were powerful. He practiced what he preached. His words penetrated their hearts. He spoke frankly, courageously, and honestly. Later on, when Jesus was teaching in the temple area, some of the leaders of the people challenged his credentials to preach. 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). Filled with the Holy Spirit, Jesus spoke only what the Father commanded him to speak. Thus, at Jesus’ Baptism and again at the Transfiguration, God the Father said of him: “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 open minds and hearts to the Father’s immense truth and love. He manifested his authority by healing the sick, forgiving sins, and raising the dead. And while Jesus’ authority was revealed through 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!
The Authority of St. Thomas Aquinas
The authority of Christ over sin and error continues to shine on in the saints, and a wonderful example of that is your patron saint, Thomas Aquinas. St. Thomas is one of the greatest minds ever to serve the Church. His was a towering intellect with a masterful command of Scripture as well as the Fathers of the Church and Greek philosophy. Scholars continue to study his many writings and to cite them as authoritative sources. On the basis of his sheer brilliance Thomas could be said to be a peerless authority … … But that is not all there was to St. Thomas. More than a scholar, he was a saint. St. Thomas not only studied the Word of God but he also contemplated it. He wrote beautiful hymns such as the Pange Lingua and the Tantum Ergo, and preached beautiful talks and conferences to his fellow Dominicans. When he was criticized, he responded gently, not self-righteously. Nor did he lord his gifts of intellect and grace over others; he remained truly humble. He realized that his writings, despite their brilliance, could not capture the majesty and immensity God’s Triune mystery and the effects of his love upon us.
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. So, if we are striving to follow the Lord, what should our exercise of authority be like? Let me suggest Christ-like qualities for the wise and loving exercise of authority:
The first quality for the worthy exercise of authority is an authentic striving for virtue. We are not as good or holy as was Jesus but we should try to imitate his goodness. After all, our example precedes our words and our decisions. In the 16th century, St. Charles Borromeo reminded his priests that, ‘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? The true answer is for our salvation and for the salvation of those with whom we interact. If we exercise authority with a deep awareness of God’s saving love for each person, then, our words, our demeanor, and quality of our decisions may well change. We must never be quick to condemn, embarrass, or banish, but rather be agents of help and healing, who seek to bring out the best in others.
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 his obedience to God’s will. If we would exercise real leadership and authority, we too must stay close to the Lord. We must listen to his Word so that our words would reflect his Word. We must seek to be the Lord’s disciples, rather than independent contractors. We are the 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 because they belong to God, we love them all the more and seek their salvation. I am not the owner of the Archdiocese of Baltimore but a steward of God’s People, and because I serve God’s People, I try to love them more and serve them as best I can.
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 sin and death. And may God bless us and keep us always in his love!