Sunday, January 29, 2012

Divine Authority (Sunday 4B)

Meryl Streep’s latest movie, “The Iron Lady,” won’t break any box office records, since fans of Margaret Thatcher don’t like its disrespectful treatment of her old age, and the younger generation has already started to forget her.

But the first woman Prime Minister of Great Britain doesn’t need to worry about her place in the history books; that’s secure enough.

And at least she would like the title of the film. The "iron lady" took pride in her nickname. When they unveiled a bronze statue of Lady Thatcher in the Houses of Parliament, she commented “I might have preferred iron – but bronze will do, since it won't rust.”

Twenty years after her retirement there are still bitter disagreements about Margaret Thatcher's policies. But there's little disagreement about her unflinching determination. People who didn't admire her beliefs still admired the remarkable way she stuck to them.

Deep down, we don't trust people who tell us what they think we want to hear.

One thing we know about Jesus: he never told people what he thought they wanted to hear. He was not afraid of being unpopular: at one point people wanted to throw him off a cliff, some of his own disciples quit when he told them his body and blood were real food and drink, and of course eventually his teaching led him to the cross. 

Yet today's Gospel shows us the attracting power of his uncompromising words. The people were “astonished” at Christ's teaching; they were “amazed.” One modern translation even says, “they were being knocked out with astonishment” (R. Gundry).

In particular, the folks listening to Jesus in the synagogue were dazzled by the authority of his teaching.

Did you notice how St. Mark underlined that?  He didn’t tell us a single thing Jesus said at Capernaum: not one word! 

Archbishop Prendergast makes this point clearly in his commentary on today's Gospel text.
“Mark stressed the impact of Jesus’ teaching without telling us what feature of it displayed that authority. His focus was on the authority as such and on the people's reaction."

So it seems right that we should spend a few moments thinking about authority as such, and on our reaction to it. Some of us grew up times when authority was respected, others when authority was routinely rejected; but all of us need to understand the special place it plays in our spiritual lives.

Many references to authority in the Catechism are about political or public authority; I’m not talking about that today. The Catechism also has a lot to say about authority in the Church; and even that's not where I'm going this morning.

Today, I want to talk about divine authority—about God’s authority, the authority with which Jesus taught in the synagogue at Capernaum. There’s not so much about that in the Catechism, perhaps because it seems obvious.

But if it’s obvious, it’s not as obvious as it once was.  Rabbi Harold Kushner’s latest book is titled “I’m God, You’re Not.” Not so many years ago, that title wouldn’t have made much sense, but nowadays there are a whole lot of people—including Catholics—who need to think that over. We have taken to insisting that God fit in with modern thinking in ways that really do not acknowledge his authority over us.

At least half the time someone challenges me about the Church’s teaching, they are challenging not her authority but God’s. They do not recognize God’s absolute and sovereign right to command whatever he chooses; they reject the Lord’s words “For my thoughts are not your thoughts,  nor are your ways my ways,” which we find in the book of the Prophet Isaiah.

Of course even the most half-hearted believers won’t turn to God and say “what right have you to tell me this or that?” They’re probably afraid he might actually answer them by saying “because I’m God, and you’re not.”

Instead, they say things like “well, the Church better get with it,” or “it’s not good to be too religious” or even “I hate religion, but I love Jesus.” That last line can simply mean “I love Jesus, but not when he tries to tell me what to do.”

Rejection of God’s authority is especially common when our bodies are involved. The pro-abortion argument that a woman has a right to her body is one example. In fact, with no apologies at all, God claims full authority over us, body and soul. St. Paul couldn’t make that clearer when he writes “do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own?”

Efforts to exclude God from civic life, from the public square, are also based on a refusal to acknowledge the supremacy of God. His laws, both natural and revealed, are only to be obeyed when they coincide with our human appraisal of the situation.

What is the correct way to understand God’s authority over our lives? The Catechism answers this very well when it says that we don’t believe because revealed truths are obviously true to our human reason but “because of the authority of God himself who reveals them,” God “who can neither deceive nor be deceived.”

Of course God has made sure that our submission in faith is nonetheless in accordance with reason. “The miracles of Christ and the saints, prophecies, the Church’s growth and holiness, and her fruitfulness and stability” are very helpful signs of divine Revelation.  Our assent to revealed truth is reasonable; by no means is it “a blind impulse” (see CCC 156). Yet ultimately, we believe because of God’s authority—even when our human understanding falters.

To continue with the Catechism, “Faith is certain. It is more certain than all human knowledge because it is founded on the very word of God who cannot lie” (CCC 157).

A couple of the candidates running for president in the United States could learn a thing or two from the Iron Lady. The number of times they’ve changed what they claim to believe is nothing short of astonishing, and people distrust them as a result.

Jesus inspires our trust by his complete consistency and confident authority. As St. Paul tells the Corinthians, Jesus “was not ‘Yes and No’; but in him it is always ‘Yes.’” If we aren’t amazed and astonished—even knocked out—by the authority of his teaching, perhaps it’s time to take today’s Psalm to heart: O that today you would listen to his voice—harden not your hearts.

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