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Saturday, August 25, 2007

Abuse of Authority

From today's Gospel reading from Matthew 23:1-12,

  Then addressing the people and his disciples Jesus said, ‘The scribes and the Pharisees occupy the chair of Moses. You must therefore do what they tell you and listen to what they say; but do not be guided by what they do: since they do not practise what they preach. They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on men’s shoulders, but will they lift a finger to move them? Not they! Everything they do is done to attract attention, like wearing broader phylacteries and longer tassels, like wanting to take the place of honour at banquets and the front seats in the synagogues, being greeted obsequiously in the market squares and having people call them Rabbi. ‘You, however, must not allow yourselves to be called Rabbi, since you have only one master, and you are all brothers. You must call no one on earth your father, since you have only one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor must you allow yourselves to be called teachers, for you have only one Teacher, the Christ. The greatest among you must be your servant. Anyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and anyone who humbles himself will exalted.

My Bible's commentary points out that there is a delicate balance on the point of authority.

  This .. suggests that the ambitious appropriate to themselves the authority over the people of God and that to a certain point God tolerates it. Matthew, in recording these words of Jesus, wants to preserve in the Church fundamental equality. It is the whole Church which enjoys the Holy Spirit, and the heads or doctors will have no authority unless they are deeply rooted in the community's life.
.. The bad example of the authorities does not discredit the word of God. Nor does it lessen the principle of authority. .. They cannot renounce their authority on the pretext of humble service and then carry out what the majority has decided.

There is no problem with people having teaching authority in God's household. The Apostles were explicitly given this authority, and even among them, Peter is singled out with primacy (see Matthew 16:13-19, John 21:15-19, Luke 22:31-32). Nor is it a problem of calling someone a father, or a rabbi, or a leader, for St. Paul does not hesitate telling the Corinthians that he became their father (1 Cor. 4:15), nor in telling the Christians in Rome that Abraham is the father of us all (Romans 4:16-17). St. John likewise does not balk at addressing his words to fathers (1 John 2:13).

And it is true that God may tolerate the sins of people in authority, as he had the many sins of kings, judges and Apostles in the Bible, as he tolerates ours -- for some periods of time. And for people ordained, God does not abolish their offices, as he retained the kingship despite Saul and/or David, the office of judges despite Samson, and in the above, the Lord allows the teachers of the Law to retain their teaching authority, despite, in the same breath, pointing out their sins and hypocrisy. For if it were a principle that an office is only as good as the office-holder, then the office of being a Christian witness is in trouble, for all can fall into sin and caused scandal.

Perhaps this is again a good occasion to point out the wise choice of the Father in choosing to building the Church upon Simon the Rock, for he is perhaps the perfect example of an office-holder who does not quite elicit complete trust. This man, so impetuous, occasionally given to thoughtless action and reaction, was not given the honor of becoming that Rock because he was personally fit for it. But then neither are any of us fit for the honor of being sons or daughters of the Most High. And yet we are. By grace. All by grace.

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