In biblical theology, authority is a gift from God. It is the power to have words with effect. Authority is the divine power that brought creation into being. It was the power given to David and the kings after him. It is a gift of pure grace that cannot be inherited, earned, traded or stolen from another. The prophets recognized that as a form of chastisement (especially of David’s descendants), God withdrew authority from Israel and handed it to foreign nations (Dn 1:1-2).
‘Whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all.’ (Mk 10:43-44)
What trappings of human authority distract you?
In whom do you recognize an authority like Christ’s?
How can you follow their example?
As they saw one after another of these foreign authorities pass away, many Jews came to believe that God planned to restore divine authority to Israel, vesting it in “one like a son of man.” He would establish a new kingdom that would govern all creation and endure forever (Dn 7:13-14).
In their Gospels, Matthew and Mark gave extended thought to authority because this Jesus who came in history bore little outward resemblance to Daniel’s predicted being. Jesus lived a simple life and died an ignominious death. The Evangelists had come to believe, in spite of appearances, that Jesus was indeed the bearer of divine authority. They strained to give evidence of Jesus’ authority throughout their Gospels. Matthew found it especially in Jesus’ great sermons, but Mark encountered it in Jesus’ healings, exorcisms and care for the least.
Living in a time of turmoil, Mark made a habit of seeking grace in the least expected places. He imagined the kingdom of God to be quite opposite to the chaotic and violent world he saw around him. He found in Jesus’ humility, life of service and shameful death a powerful counterexample to the vanities of human power. Service to the great was a sure path to authority in the Greco-Roman world. Service to the least was thus the sign of divine authority that Mark found in Jesus. Jesus spent his life conforming himself to love of God and neighbor; any who would lead in his stead must do the same.
Christians today need to attend to this lesson. We certainly see it vividly played out these days among the church hierarchy. All of us who minister in any way, however, must also remember this. Many of us have credentials or advanced degrees. We may have undergone moving and meaningful ceremonies of ordination, installation, commissioning or religious initiation. None of these things give us our authority. At best, these brief public recognitions celebrate God’s work in us, but they are in fact often distractions that draw attention away from the action of the Spirit. At their worst, they allow our egos to deceive us into taking credit for the action of grace. The only sure way to manifest authority in Christ’s church is to wait upon the least. The only sure way to recognize authority is to follow those who serve. Many of us will need to relearn how to recognize authority, but with eyes formed by Jesus’ own words and example, we will come to follow those who serve the least and give their lives for the freedom of others.