For the last several weeks, Mark has been demonstrating for us the authority and power Jesus possesses and Paul, in his 2nd letter to the Corinthians, has been defending his authority and power delegated to him through Jesus. This can begin to sound like just so much office politics. Why do we care? What makes these stories sacred? How do we apply them to our lives today?
I found myself turning to my old Organizational Behavior textbook (Hellreigel, Slocum, Woodman 8th edition) remembering lengthy discourses in there on authority and power. They describe authority as “power legitimated by (1) being formally granted… and (2) accepted…as being right and proper.” Power can come from a legitimate source, such as the authority granted by one’s position or from other sources such as the power to reward or punish, the power that comes with knowledge or skills in a certain area, or the power of personality, the ability to influence others because they like or trust or admire you.
When Mark opens his gospel he begins by establishing Jesus’ authority. He first quotes from Isaiah, a trusted and revered prophet who foretells the coming of John the Baptist as “the voice of one crying in the wilderness ‘Prepare the way of the Lord.’ (Mark 1:3) Mark is claiming that Jesus is the one that John testified concerning his coming. He uses an ancient authority and then a modern one. He then goes on to describe Jesus’ qualifications. Jesus is the obedient Son of God. Immediately following his baptism, “a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” He describes Jesus’ strong moral character in the story of the temptations in the wilderness. He describes his knowledge as he teaches in the synagogue and “they were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority” (Mark 1: 22). And Mark demonstrates that Jesus’ power and authority extends not just in the earthly realm, but into the spiritual realm as well as he heals a man with an unclean spirit and the people “are amazed, and they kept asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching – with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” (Mark 1:27)
Skipping ahead to chapter 5, Jesus demonstrates his authority over the forces of nature. He commands the wind, “Peace, Be still!” and the wind obeys him. He heals the Gerasene of a legion of demons – probably a subtle reference to the Roman occupation of Israel. Jesus has authority over the “powers and principalities”. Jesus’ power and authority extend to both the rich and the poor in the story we heard last week about the healing of Jarius’ daughter (Jarius being a leader of the synagogue.) Her healing is interrupted by the healing of a poor women who only touched Jesus’ garment in faith and the demonstration is completed with Jesus raising Jarius’ daughter from the dead. Jesus is the one with absolute authority and power.
Mark certainly presents a glowing resume of Jesus’ authority, power, knowledge and skills which makes one wonder about today’s reading. Once again, Jesus is teaching in the synagogue on the sabbath, this time in Nazareth, his ‘home town’. Again they are amazed at the wisdom of his teachings and the demonstrations of his power, but this time they are offended, because they know his family. They probably watched him grow up as a child and we are told that he had limited effect. Authority and power are dependent upon the response of the other person. Remember the 2nd part of authority is that it is accepted as being right and proper. I wasn’t there, I don’t know these people, but one might suspect jealousy could have been a significant contributor to their attitude. It is one thing for someone we don’t know to gain wealth or power or prestige, it is a totally different thing for one of our own to attain these things above and beyond the expectation and abilities of their group. We are told that Jesus “was amazed at their unbelief.” (Mark 6:6).
In the second half of our gospel reading, Jesus does what all good leaders do, he delegates. “He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits.” (Mark 6:7). This pattern that he established is the way the church works, or at least is supposed to work today. First we go out two by two or in larger groups, bearing witness to Christ, but also to one another, supporting one another, and holding one another accountable. We go out with the authority given to Jesus through the Father, and delegated to us through the church.
Jesus requires this first group he sends out to be totally dependent upon God to provide for their needs through the people to whom they are witnessing. They are only allowed a staff – no ice chest with lunch, no money, credit card, or cash app, no backpack with a change of clothes. They were to enter the house that accepted them and stay for the duration of their visit. No moving in with the person down the street that has better food, an entertainment room and pool in the backyard. And they are not to waste their time arguing with someone who was not willing to listen to them. We are told they were successful. “They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.” (Mark 6:13)
This takes us to Paul. Paul’s authority stems from his experience of the risen Christ on the road to Damascus. He finds himself in the position of defending his authority with his own congregation against the work of later evangelists who have come and criticized Paul and his teachings. Why does Paul care? He is concerned that this congregation that he planted and nurtured may turn away from the truth and accept teaching he feels are false because the Corinthias have transferred their loyalty to these persons he believes are “false apostles.”
Paul’s plea begins at the beginning of chapter 11 where he begins “I wish you would bear with me in a little foolishness.” (2 Cor 11:1). He describes himself like a father who plans to give his virgin daughter to her rightful husband only to find that she has taken a lover in his absence. He asks if they believed in him less because he came to them in love, asking nothing of them, and declares that whether they think him a fool or not he will continue to behave in the same way. He tells them they make think him a fool, but he facetiously comments on their wisdom at allowing these “false-apostles” to “make slaves of you, or prey upon you, or take advantage of you, or puts on airs, or give you a slap in the face.” (2 Cor 11:20). Paul readily admits that he was “too weak” to take advantage of them in that way. He boasts a bit of his Jewish education, which is probably something the “false-apostles” have used as a source of their authority. He speaks vaguely about his encounter with the risen Christ, but in the 3rd persons, not willing to hold that over them. He then tells them his real source of authority is all the trials he has suffered because it is when he is weak, that Christ has used him and that Christ told him “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” This is the heart of his message. This is what Jesus was demonstrating when he sent the twelve out with nothing but the gospel and his authority.
There are both words of comfort and caution in these two stories. It should be comforting to know that God does not require us to be experts, to be charismatic and dynamic of our own effort. We present ourselves willing, offer what we have and God will put it to good use. He will even put to good use those things in our lives that we find to be weaknesses. We need to remember that all authority comes from God. We are mid-management, so to speak, only having what authority has been delegated to us. We are not to see fame and fortune, but to seek God. There are those who may present themselves as authorities because of their education, or their charismatic personalities, or their ability to perform signs and wonders. We are responsible for discerning the real source of their authority before we jump on their wagon and trust them to lead us.
Authority and power can be great gifts when they come from God. They can be terrible weapons when they come from other sources. We must be prudent about giving our trust to other humans. We must be “gentle as doves, but wise a serpent.”