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Monday, February 2, 2009

Story, Authority and Hard-Heartedness

My homily from this past Sunday:

If you are familiar with the stories of fantasy epics like The Lord of the Rings, or the Chronicles of Narnia, or even the Matrix, you already know something about the background of today’s readings. The stories open in a dark time, a time when the glories of the past are a distant memory, and the future is uncertain. Some believe that there is someone who will come to make everything right again. Others believe that such beliefs are nothing but false hope. Those who exercise authority all seem flawed. It’s hard to know who to trust. The best thing to do might be just to look out for yourself and make the most of the time you’ve been given. But some look to the prophecies and promises of the past, and see a new hope unfolding.

Our readings today inspire similar sentiments. And this is not just any story. It’s our story. God speaks to us first through the person of Moses, who tells God’s chosen people, “A prophet like me will the Lord, your God, raise up for you among your own kin; to him you shall listen.” This is just the beginning of the epic story of our ancestors in the faith told to us in the Old Testament. In each generation after Moses, a prophet like him is called forward to be the “new Moses,” and it is by means of that prophet that God continues to speak to his people. Two weeks ago we heard the story of the calling of Samuel, one of the many prophets who would act as Moses’ successor among the Jewish people. Yet, it was also around the time of Samuel that the people asked for more. They looked at the other nations around them and told God that they wanted a king, like them. God warned them that this was not a good idea, but they insisted and God gave them a king. Among the many problems this new situation posed was that of conflicting authority. Though the prophet was often called upon to advise the king, there was often a difference of opinion as to who had the greater authority. Those who know the story of King David and Bathsheba know that when the king abused his authority in having Bathsheba’s husband killed, Samuel’s successor the prophet Nathan was sent by God to tell him so. Eventually such tensions tore the kingdom into two, and the prophets and the kings stopped coming.

So, just as Gondor suffered a period without a king, and Narnia suffers numerous times from the absence of the hero Aslan, so the Jewish people endured a dark time during which the promised prophets were called no longer. This is where we find ourselves at the beginning of Mark’s gospel today. We get the sense that there are those who have been long on the lookout for something new, searching for that new voice of authority that they don’t hear in their church leadership. And suddenly Jesus appears and there is something different about him. He not only inspires one to listen, but even evil spirits obey his authority. As the citizens of Middle Earth suspect that in Aragorn they are witnessing the return of the king, so the Jewish people suspect that this new teaching with authority in Jesus marks the return of the new Moses among them. But as is true of all such stories, those in authority will resist allowing an unknown to take their place, even if they suspect themselves that he may be genuine. In the Lord of the Rings, for example, Denethor, who has long served as protector of Gondor in the absence of the king, seems to recognize Aragorn’s legitimacy as king but in his pride, and desperation over the death of his son, will not allow his authority to be taken from him. I imagine it is true also that many of the Scribes and Pharisees sensed Jesus’ true authority, but could not accept the loss of their own. Because of this they became deaf both to the voice of the first Moses, and to the new Moses.

But what about now? After the life, death and resurrection of Jesus where do we find ourselves in the continuing drama of our relationship with God? Today’s second reading from the letter of St. Paul doesn’t seem to be of much help, and it shouldn’t be. St. Paul didn’t expect things were going to get too complicated after Jesus, because he thought Jesus would return in his lifetime. This is why he tells the Corinthians not to worry about complicating their lives too much. Well, here we are 2000 years later, and things can get pretty complicated whether you are married or not! And many of us are asking once again: where do we find those teachings with authority, that speak to us the way Jesus spoke to the people of his time?

Well, we first ought to admit to ourselves that as 21st century Americans we have a somewhat complicated relationship with authority. We are brought up in a culture that values individualism and self-determination, and thus tends to be suspicious—if not contemptuous—of authority. So, as a result, we tend to go to extremes. Either we decide that authority is authority, and if some person or institution has it, then we ought to obey whatever they say. Or we take an attitude that authority is only worth listening to if it fits with what I believe or tells me to do something that I want to do. Both these approaches, I believe amount to what today’s Psalm calls a “hardening of heart.” There is no true attention to the voice of authority, because one’s response is already pre-determined. There can also be a worse hardening when those in authority disappoint us; it may be that we decide that they are not worth listening to at all. But this is not faithful to our story, a story in which through the centuries we have recognized that God has indeed spoken through fallible human beings, people that have both made mistakes and spoken in prophetic ways on behalf of God. This is why both blind obedience to and blind contempt of authority miss the mark. Like the people of Jesus’ time we are called to be on the lookout for those “new teachings, with authority,” that is, the voice of Jesus speaking through both those who have institutional authority and those who have authority merely by the example of their holy lives. We must listen for the voice of Jesus in our midst, and heed the command of the psalm: “If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.”