Sunday, January 28, 2018

Authority Issues

   Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time   B 
Who are some of the authority figures you encounter in your ordinary, day-to-day life?  Police, judges, teachers, doctors, parents, spouse—the list could go on and on.  From where do they get their authority?  Some from the law or an election, some from their superior knowledge, some from a “higher power.”  But none of them have authority on their own; it’s borrowed, if you will, from another.

Such was the case among the rabbis and scribes of Jesus’ day.  When preaching and teaching, they would always make an appeal to the authorities.  “My mentor, Rabbi Frank, used to say…”  “Rabbi Bob, at the next synagogue over, has always taught…”  Of course, beyond citing other scholars, they would also invoke the authority of the Sacred Scriptures—the Law and the Prophets—with especial reverence for the words of Moses.  The people in the synagogue that Sabbath were astonished because “he taught them as one having authority.”  We don’t know the details of that particular sermon, but on a number of other occasions we hear Jesus say, “You have heard it said…but I say to you….”  His authority was all his own.

When someone speaks with that sort of authority, you sit up straight and pay attention.

Does Jesus still have that same authority?  Yes.  Is he still speaking?  Yes.  But are we paying attention?

When was the last time you heard the voice of the Lord?  (You might be thinking, “I’d better be careful how I answer this question or I’ll end up in therapy!”)

There are some usual, dependable, recognized places where we can always hear the Lord speaking. 

One of them is through the Scriptures.  We don’t believe that the Bible is just ink on a page, preserving dead words from the distant past; instead, we believe it is the living word of God, which still has plenty to say to you and me today.  That’s why, as a parish priest, one of the most distressing things I regularly see is people reading their bulletins during the first part of the Mass—preferring to browse the announcements rather than give their full attention to God as he’s speaking.  When God speaks, we should sit up straight and listen.

Another dependable place to hear the Lord’s voice is in the teaching of the Church.  The Church is not merely a human institution, but is in fact the Body of Christ, guided by the Holy Spirit.  Now, I’m not referring here to mere offhanded comments or the personal opinions of the clergy—whether it’s a deacon, a priest, a bishop, or even the pope.  But when the Church officially teaches on matters of faith and morals, she does so with an authority given her by Jesus Christ.  With Jesus’ own authority the Church applies what the Lord has said in the past to our lives today.  And so when the Church teaches, we ought to really pay attention.

Yet another place we can expect to regularly hear the voice of the Lord is in the lives and writings of the saints.  The friends of God, who have given flesh and blood to the words of Scripture and the teaching of the Church, are a loud and clear message to you and me of the holiness to which we have all been called.  Get to know the saints and you’ll come to recognize the sounds of God’s voice.

But God also can—and often does—speak to us in some unexpected, unusual ways.  Maybe it’s through the words of the book you’re reading or a song that comes over the radio; maybe it’s in conversation with a stranger or while gazing upon a sunset; maybe it’s in silence or in the sound of a baby’s cry (which is why I think we ought to let the children speak, even if it’s loudly and in the middle of the homily).

But we won’t ever hear the voice of the Lord if we aren’t listening for it.  And what we hear won’t matter a bit if we don’t take his authority seriously.

Who in that synagogue in Capernaum takes the authority of Jesus most seriously?  The demon!  The unclean spirit knows who Jesus really is and fully recognizes his absolute authority.  The spirit hates to do it, but he can’t resist.  For the forces of evil, this is a losing battle.  They must obey.

But we have a choice when we stand before Jesus, when we hear his word.  Jesus came to destroy the sway of the devil and his minions.  But us?  Jesus came to save us.  Yet we can only be saved if we’re willing: willing to acknowledge Jesus identity; willing to recognize his authority; willing to follow him; willing to obey.

Jesus is still speaking.  Listen carefully, and you’ll be amazed.

* * *
After Holy Communion:
Jesus is just as present to us here and now as he was on another Sabbath long ago in that synagogue in Capernaum—present to us today in the Sacrament of his Body and Blood.  And Jesus is still speaking, Jesus is still teaching.  During these few moments of silence, let us still our hearts and minds so we can give our full attention to the voice of the Lord as he speaks to us again.

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