There may be no more relevant questions in our postmodern age than questions of authority – what is it, who has it, and what does it mean, really? Deuteronomy gave authority to elders, priests, governors, and kings. These folk held their respective offices mindful of their collective responsibility to interpret the authority of Torah by listening to and seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit for the common good.
Far too easily, it seems, folk seek office, and use office, to further personal agendas and private interests. The Torah recognized another authority in Israel – one without an office. A prophet could be a sheepherder (Amos), a woman (Deborah), a hairy man of the wilderness (Elijah), a farmer (Elisha), a servant of the temple (Samuel), or a child (Jeremiah). They could address kings, priests, elders, and people with the phrase, “Thus saith the Lord,” because they attended earnestly to the voice of God’s Spirit.
Writing to his sister in 1947, President Harry Truman described the office of president as “a glorified public relations man who spends his time praising, kissing, and kicking people to get them to do what they’re supposed to be doing anyway” (Streiker, Lowell D., Treasury of Humor, Copyright 2000, Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, MA, p. 325).
Jesus did nothing less. The people of his day were waiting on the Realm of God to appear and to deliver them, and Jesus said you have the power to live within the Realm of God now because it’s already within you. In other words, stop waiting to live someday as you think you should be and start living today. The power of God is available, if you’d just live like God is present, willing, and able to be God, now.
Jesus also spent time cradling people in his arms as a mother carries a child – comforting them in their distress, forgiving their sins, and healing their diseases. However, he also spent a good deal of time kicking them – making every effort, even at the risk of his own wellbeing, to provoke them to live as they were already supposed to be living. It’s far too easy for us in retrospect to think we’re any different from the generations of our spiritual forebears who stoned the prophets, beheaded disciples, and saints, for speaking the truth in love.
Reflecting on Truman’s term as President, John F. Kennedy said: “As a member of the House I used to wonder how Truman got into so much trouble. Now I’m beginning to get the idea. It’s not that difficult” (ibid).
It’s not difficult to get in trouble if you’re engaged in the purposeful act of getting people to do what they’re already supposed to be doing. It’s even more difficult when the only power you have to affect them is the power of persuasion. At some deep level, you’re asking them to be more than they think they are, to believe they can accomplish more than they believe they can. In some respect, you’re inviting them to risk the most terrible event the human psyche can imagine – the fear of failure; the death of something we hold dearer than life itself at times – our self importance.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about the gospel is that Jesus, on the one hand, says there’s nothing “good” in any of us. But, he doesn’t leave it at that. He goes on to say, God is good, and then demonstrates the goodness of God in the most amazing ways – forgiving sins, and healing disease.
By what authority does he do these things? Does he call down fire from heaven? Does he gather a group of powerful friends to sway public opinion? No. He loves. He loves with the love of God. He loves everyone – and that’s the most amazing thing of all, he’s willing to talk with anyone, even those who come to take his life, and he loves.
Jesus says you can be better than you think you are. Not because you’re better than you think, but because God is better than you think. Jesus invites us to become “children of God.” Unless we become as children, he says, we cannot enter the Realm of God. Unless we learn to feel the reins of a loving parent and respond with love in kind, we cannot know God.
Consider how Cincinnati would be radically altered, overnight, if every person in it who claimed to know God would just love every other person. Factions would disappear. The common good would be the rule by which we lived our lives. Stalemates and gridlock would disappear. The simple truth and honesty of love would hold sway in our relationships and conversations.
Imagine what that might be like, just for a moment. Our communities of faith might begin to dance with God and with one another, and the world would see the authority of love.