Authority, the dictionary tells me, means several things: for one, the power to enforce obedience. In practical affairs, we often think of it as the right to tell others what to do. Wouldn’t you think that if anyone has that right, it would be those who know the law best? One would suppose that interpreters of the law would have, above all others, the understanding of what is expected of those under them. In Jesus’ day, that would be the scribes and/or the Pharisees. And yet, when Jesus taught, people were amazed, not only at what He said, but how He said it: with real authority. Twice the Gospel writers tell us what happened. “When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law.” (Matthew 7:28, 29 NIV) This was Jesus’ teaching called “the sermon on the mount.” In the synagogue at Capernaum, “The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law.” (Mark 1:22 NIV)
Those who listened were used to authority, even religious authority. But Jesus spoke with real authority, some versions emphasize, not like the other teachers. What made everyone so amazed at Jesus’ teaching? What’s the difference between real authority and unreal authority? Jesus did not enforce obedience; he invited obedience by His love and wisdom and hope.
Authority is a bad word to many people, a bad nine-letter word. They have no particular problem with submitting to governmental authority; they pay taxes, they obey traffic laws, they don’t participate in illegal activities. They deal successfully with authority in school or the workplace too. But when confronted with the idea of authority in the home or in the Church, they become confused, afraid, or stubborn. Why is this?
Authority in the places where the heart is drawn in—the home and the Church—where one’s most intimate self is exposed, can be a frightening concept. This is because many misunderstand what authority in these circumstances means. And who is it that most misunderstands? The authority figures themselves. It is perfectly clear to the person—most often a woman or a child in the home but anyone in the Church—who has been wounded by experiences of misuse or abuse what “authority” means. It means to be wary of those who can hurt them again. If the person(s) in authority cannot be trusted to act in one’s best interests, then it makes absolute sense to be watchful, perhaps even fearful of them.
There are indeed some willful women or naughty children and selfish, cranky church members. But far too often, those who say, “My wife won’t submit,” or “My kids better obey or else,” or “That church member is not conforming,” are requiring those who follow them to give up something of their personhood. They are asking that they themselves be lifted up as makers, interpreters, and enforcers of the law—and there is no one more dangerous to others in these situations than the person who presumes to know what is “good” or “right” for everyone and has the power to make them do it.
Jesus drew people, not with fear or threats, but with the force of love. Tax collectors and prostitutes knew He wouldn’t beat them into observing the law. Cowards and big-talkers alike knew there was grace for them. Children knew they would be welcome and gravitated to Him. The sick and the mentally ill and even a dying thief somehow knew they could ask loving favor from this Man. And this brings us to another definition of authority: the power to influence thought and behavior.
Authority, to a lot of people, is a bad nine-letter word. It can be reduced, though, to a couple of four-letter words: l-o-v-e or f-e-a-r. Only the first carries authority that is real. And that is Jesus’ style.
Scripture taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®. NIV®. Copyright©1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved.