Sunday, 1 February 2009

4th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B

Mark’s Gospel continues with another revelation of the divinity of Christ. Demons possessing a man knew the true identity of Christ as they shouted: “We know you are the Holy One of God”. This Holy One of God made a deep impression as He taught with authority in the synagogue.

His authority in word (teaching in the synagogue) and deed (driving out the demons) signals the beginning of the Messianic age where Satan’s reign is being curtailed. This exercise of authority is set within the context of service. Christ’s authority is always in the service of the Kingdom. We know this for sure when later in Mark’s Gospel two of the disciples asked for positions of power only to be met by Christ re-directing their passion or their desire to service. “The rulers of the world lord it over the people. But you rule by serving”.

This Sunday we ask what it means for Christians to speak and to act with authority.

We answer the question by first talking about acting with authority. We are familiar with “actions” that must be part of our discipleship. Jesus is the primary example of action on behalf of the poor, the widow and the orphaned. Today, He drove out the evil spirits. In the area of action, without a doubt, we excel. In a sense, we are an authority in the area of advocacy or action on behalf of the poor. No doubt we can do better but still, look at the many agencies of charity that is borne of Christian action. In fact, one of the comments heard post 2004 Tsunami was that many Christian aid agencies were the first to mobilise assistance to a region which was predominant of another religion. Our actions on behalf of God’s people cut across religious lines. But, charitable actions are not the preserve of Christians.

While we may excel at charity, what we may have failed to do is to make a stronger connexion between our conscience and our charity. If you like, it is not enough to be charitable because, as stated above, charity is not the preserve of Christian discipleship. What is required is that we speak with authority. This is where we might head into some difficulty.

It is not easy to speak with authority. In general, those in authority have abused their position of power. We experience doctors who are somewhat careless with their diagnosis or police rigging evidence to make a case. In this country, what is glaringly apparent are the ways many politicians have blatantly enriched themselves through the abuse of their authority. Failure of those in authority has turned the public to suspicion of authority in general.

The point is, many a times we dare not speak “with authority” because we have fractured consciences. This is evident as we tend to say, “Who am I to judge?” The attitude may be noble. But beyond this nobility what we actually encounter is a fear that we might not be “good” enough to judge. In some cases, we have taken the challenge of Jesus personally: “Let he who has no sin cast the first stone”. Again that might be noble, but, unfortunately, this may also mean that in most cases we have actually used our personal standard of morality as the criterion for judgement. It means that, “if I am not holy or good, I keep my mouth shut”. It is as if I, or what I am capable of, were the standard of morality.

When personal morality becomes the measure for our interaction, what is observable is a breakdown in civil and rational society because we fear someone who will say, “Who are you to judge me”. Just observe our “modern” neighbourhoods turning “polite”. Just as long as we are polite, that is acceptable. The fact is we are afraid. What happens is that truth becomes trapped in personality or rather truth becomes something which in its essence cannot be truly communicated in a rational manner. At a personal level, truth is about me—what I think or what I feel. And at the level of society, we know this to be happening when groups begin to lobby or take entrenched positions. When we begin to protect our personal interest or the interest of the group, race, religion or culture, then truth is the casualty. We can’t begin to approximate at truth when we are protecting our interest.

Today, as Christ spoke with authority, it is an invitation to return to morality. Morality is not just about doing things but rather a position of the heart. In the 2nd Reading, St Paul spoke of freedom from worry in the context of marriage. But the freedom he was referring to was really a freedom that arose from devotion to the Lord’s affairs. What is the Lord’s affair if it is not living up to the standards of God? Morality is a position of the human heart with regard to God. When there is a unity between God and the religious person, what follows is the freedom of authority. This is the basis for our discipleship.

What is definitely a challenge is for us to live up to a standard of personal responsibility that is beyond just the self. Credibility and consistency are necessary so that we can speak with authority. It is an authority that does not assert that God is on our side but rather proclaims that we are on God’s side; that we are devoted to God’s affairs. Otherwise, we will continue to act at best, with limited authority or at worst, on our own authority. What happens with limited authority is that we will begin to use fear or intimidation to bolster our already weakened authority. I am sure I don’t need to spell out where one can encounter this form of authority

We have no respect for that kind of authority. Thus, what is needed is the authority that comes with the freedom to stand before God with a conscience that is clear. It is not easy but neither is it impossible. We will fail but that is no reason to give up. We ask God because He is the source of that authority for both our speech and our action. We rely on His grace to narrow the gap between our word and our action. That is the pathway to authority of word and action.