Authority and Authenticity
“By what authority do you do these things, and who gave you this authority?” — Matthew 21:23
The times that we are going through right now in our country remind me of the era that I grew up in as a child, teenager and college student. Those years were in the 1960’s and 70’s,
It was the era of the civil rights movement for racial justice, the feminist movement for women’s rights, voting rights, and the anti-Vietnam war movement. Like today, there were protests and marches and demonstrations going on here in Washington DC and all over the nation.
There was also some great music that grew out of social justice movements during those years. Artists like Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul and Mary, Pete Seeger, and many more played their songs at gatherings in DC and around the country.
I still love listening to that music today—a have a lot of it on my Spotify playlist.
When I started college at UCLA, it was a couple of years after Watergate had taken place, so all these social movements and this scandal involved President Nixon served to create this lack of trust in political leaders and the government institutions they represented.
A group on campus was passing out buttons which said ‘Question Authority’ and I snatched one up and put in on my backpack and had it there for quite a while.
The idea was that just because someone has a position of leadership, of power, that it doesn’t mean they automatically deserve to be trusted and followed.
Rather, we started to realize that political leaders and other people in positions of power needed to be held accountable for what they said and what they did, for their words and for their actions. So people started questioning their authority.
Sometimes that task could be risky, especially if it exposed things that leaders were trying to cover up. Do some of you remember the movie “Silkwood”? It came out in the early 80’s and told the story of a woman named Karen Silkwood, played by Meryl Streep.
Silkwood worked at a nuclear power plant in the 1970’s and was a whistleblower who exposed some dangerous practices that the plant was doing which was exposing its employees to radiation.
She was seen as a threat to the management, and one day she mysteriously turns up dead.
So questioning authority can sometimes be dangerous because it questions the status quo, but holding people in leadership accountable is an important part of living in a democracy and of being responsible citizens.
And it’s often part of the process of bringing about social justice and change.
Our gospel story today is about questioning authority. Jesus is asked “by what authority are you doing these things- preaching, healing, casting out evil spirits, forgiving sins.
But in this case, it’s a little different than the examples that I was talking about earlier.
Because here the status quo is a group that has enjoyed power and authority in the Jewish community, because they are the chief priests and elders of that community, people like the Pharisees,
And these are the ones questioning the authority of Jesus, who was also Jewish, but who burst onto the scene with a new vision of what it means to be a person of faith,
And how people of faith are called to live in the world. Jesus’ agenda as a leader was tied up in the vision and the values of the Kingdom or Reign of God,
It was and still is a vision which gets to the root of what religion should be all about, which in the Reign of God is summarized by Jesus with the words in what we call the great commandment:
Love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus said that this commandment sums up all the laws and religious practices that existed in the Jewish faith.
Jesus taught with his words and modeled with his life how this love looks like when it’s fleshed out, and it is a love that was much broader and inclusive than how the Jewish religious leaders understood it,
To Jesus, God’s love was for all people, and thus was to be extended to people who were considered “sinners”, like basically all non-Jewish people,
And even to people who were outcasts like tax-collectors, and lepers and prostitutes, and to the poor who were so often taken advantage of.
So Jesus went around eating with people who were considered “unclean”, healing people and forgiving people of their sins, setting them free from what bound them,
And right before this confrontation with these priests and elders he had gone into the temple and overturned the tables where animals to be sacrificed at the altar were being sold for jacked up prices that these priests were profiting from.
Man, Jesus would have had a field day at Nationals Park or at the Movie theater! He’d see a lot of injustice in those institutions in the prices they charged for popcorn and drinks, and he’d be overturning those popcorn machines and the trays they go around selling drinks in.
So Jesus’ authority was being questioned partly because these religious leaders wondered if Jesus really did have the authority do the things he was doing because they believed that only God had that kind of authority.
And they didn’t want to believe that he was the God, the Messiah promised in the Old Testament.
And they also questioned Jesus’ authority because he was questioning the ways that they were practicing their religion.
And these religious leaders were upset and put on the defensive because Jesus was making them look bad by exposing their corruption and by revealing their hypocrisy as leaders who preached one thing but practiced another,
The hypocrisy of working hard to put on a good front and façade, while hiding their greed, their prejudices, their holier-than-thou attitudes, trying to cover up for their self-serving behavior.
In reality, these religious leaders were mad at Jesus because Jesus’ teachings and actions were showing them up, and causing people to question their authority,
The crowds of people who followed Jesus were growing, and a lot of these people were starting to transfer their loyalty and allegiance away from the religious leaders and over to Jesus,
And understandably, these leaders were filled with envy and jealousy.
And the amazing thing was that Jesus was not an official leader who people were obligated to obey and follow, but rather they freely chose to submit themselves to his authority in their lives.
I think that that there are two kinds of authority in the world:
There’s authority that is conferred and authority that is earned.
Conferred authority is where you have power and authority over other people by virtue of position or title they have in the institution or organization, President, VP, CEO, boss, supervisor, manager, board member, etc.
With conferred authority, people are obligated to obey and follow the rules procedures that the leader sets and is charged with enforcing
Conferred authority is not bad in and of itself; it’s necessary to have structures where people are entrusted to be leaders to give vision and help run an organization or a business, people who oversee others,
and when they do their job the way they were entrusted to do it, things run smoothly and the organization and the people who are working in it flourish.
And then there’s authority that is earned. It’s authority that is not given automatically or because people are forced to submit to it;
So how do leaders earn their authority? As I thought about it, I came up with several factors or character traits:
One is that leaders need to show that they are competent, that they know what they are doing.
Another factor is that leaders earn authority by leading through example, they follow the rules themselves, they practice what they preach; authority is also earned when leaders put the needs of the organization and it’s people above their own; they show that they truly care and work to serve the people rather than use their power to serve themselves and for their own personal glory and gain.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a great example of a leader who really cared about others and used her position to serve our country. She said, “If you want to be a true professional, do something outside of yourself”.
RBG modeled this by advocating for the rights of so many different groups of people throughout her career on the Supreme Court.
Another important way that leaders earn authority by being honest and transparent – they don’t hide things that their people need to know or sugarcoat them. It’s good to be optimistic, but you have to face the truth head on.
I think that we’ve learned the importance of this the hard way through this coronavirus pandemic—if our government would have dealt with earlier, the US might be in a much better place right now like other countries that took it seriously from the beginning.
Another thing that helps leaders earn authority is by being accountable to their people.
They own up to their mistakes, and take responsibility for them, rather than blaming other people when there is a problem. This takes humility, which is a character trait that is sometimes hard for leaders to cultivate.
When leaders exhibit these qualities, they earn people’s respect and their trust, which is crucial for leaders to have.
Karen and I recently watched that new Netflix documentary called “My Octopus Teacher”. It’s an amazing and visually stunning story of a relationship that develops between a man and an octopus.
It sounds crazy, but by visiting the octopus in its habitat every day for about a year, they develop this incredible understanding for each other and earn each other’s respect and trust over the course of that year.
One reviewer called it a “spiritual experience”, which I think is true, and I highly recommend it for the entire family.
I grew up by the ocean and have done some snorkeling, so it was especially enjoyable for me to watch. But even if you didn’t, you’d love it. It’s really a story of learning to build trust and respect.
So when leaders exhibit all of the traits that I mentioned, leaders earn their authority. People follow them because they want to, not just because they have to.
We can say that when leaders and really all people act this way, they are being authentic. True authority is rooted in authenticity.
Jesus was this kind of leader, his authority was rooted in his authenticity. He led by example, he had true compassion for people, and he lived a life of service and sacrifice for the sake of others.
The passage from Philippians is a powerful description of the servant leader that Jesus was. So Jesus was a person of his word, and he was the real deal.
The same thing could not be said for many of the religious leaders of Jesus’ day. They may have had conferred authority, but it wasn’t always earned because they were a long way from being authentic people—
they lacked real concern for others, their pride prevented them being humble, they were self-serving, and they were two-faced.
The questions I want to ask all of us today are these:
First, if we are in a position of authority- maybe through our job, our community, or even in our family as a parent: are we living in a way and treating people under our leadership in a way that earns their trust and respect,
Are we being an authentic person who people want to follow and submit to?
Or is our authority only conferred by virtue of our title or position?
And to all of us, in all of our relationships, are we seeking to be authentic in the way that we live our lives?
I want to close with a story from my own life. Early on in my ministry I had an experience that really challenged whether I was being an authentic leader and an authentic follower of Jesus.
We were living in Bolivia, working as mission workers with the Bolivian Mennonite Church.
We had moved into a marginal neighborhood on the outskirts of the growing city of Santa Cruz. At that point we had two young sons and a little cocker spaniel named Johnny.
Named after my brother who had visited us in Bolivia.
Anyway, we were building relationships with our neighbors and inviting those who were interested to a Bible study in our house.
The topic of one of the Bible studies was about faith, having the faith to trust Jesus, especially when times get tough and when the future is uncertain.
I pointed out all kinds of scriptures to remind us that God is trustworthy and encouraged people at the Bible study to put our trust in Jesus for the big things and the little things.
When the Bible study was over, and people started leaving, I noticed that our dog Johnny was not around. I looked all around the house and yard, and he was nowhere to be found.
I started stressing out in front of some of the people who were still around. I’m going “this is terrible that Johnny is missing! If we don’t find him, our boys will be devastated!”
“What am I going to do if Johnny is gone for good?”
So I’m freaking out like crazy and one of our guests, a young man named Julian, is standing there just watching me freak out.
And then he looks at me and says,
“Don Esteban, Please forgive me, but I don’t understand why you are acting this way. Just a few minutes ago in our Bible study you said all these wonderful things about how we can trust God for everything in life, and because of that, we don’t have to worry or be hopeless.
But here you are stressing out and lamenting that you may never see your dog again. Where is the faith that you talked about having? Don’t you think that you can trust God and pray to Him that Johnny will be found and be reunited with your family?”
Wow. I was left speechless. And I was left convicted that I wasn’t practicing what I had just preached. I was failing badly at leading by example, I was falling short of being an authentic leader.
I mustered up the words to say “You’re right, Julian. Thank you for having the courage and honesty to point this out to me and hold me accountable to what I said at the Bible study.”
My concern about Johnny and my feeling humiliated at my bad example kept me awake most of the night. I wondered if I had just destroyed any credibility I had as a Christian, any trust or authority that I had earned from people,
Some of that had to be rebuilt over time with Julian and others who witnessed my behavior that night.
But by the grace of God, the ministry continued and a church was birthed out of that Bible study, a church that still continues to worship today with amazing Bolivian leadership.
So there is hope when we stumble on the road to authenticity, there can be grace shown and forgiveness granted.
Jesus is the best example I know of as an authentic person and leader. If we model our life after his, we will be on the right track toward authenticity.
If we cultivate the compassion to serve others and care about the most neglected and most unlovable, people will know that we truly care about them.
If instead of getting defensive, we own up to our mistakes and allow ourselves to learn and grow from them, we will earn people’s respect.
If instead of refusing to answer to people, we submit ourselves with a willingness to be accountable to them, that will build bridges and trust and respect.
May God give us the strength, the courage and humility to live as authentic people and to lead with an authority that comes from authenticity. AMEN.
P.S. The next day Johnny showed up in the arms of a neighbor who had found him roaming the streets of our neighborhood 😊.