What Does It Mean To Have Authority? – Francis Alvarez, SJ

Mark 1:21-28, Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time


Twice in our Gospel today, Jesus is described as someone with authority. But he did not hold any position in the community like the elders or the scribes. Nor did he have power like the chief priests and the Romans. What does it mean to have authority?

“He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him” (Mark 1:27). Does having authority mean having your every order followed?

Just three verses before, we read about a man who was possessed crying out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?” Does having authority mean having others fear you?

Consider again the outburst of the man with the unclean spirit. If he had just stayed quiet, maybe he could have just blended in with everybody else. After all, he had entered the synagogue and was sitting there with everyone else without anyone noticing his presence. Why did he have to shout out and call attention to himself?

I think it was because there was something about Jesus that just made the truth come out. Maybe it was Jesus’ own truthfulness. Maybe it was because Jesus confronted the truth, and that made others confront the truth also. I think this is what it means to have authority: A person with real authority makes us face the truth about ourselves and about the world just as he or she faces the truth and all its consequences. After the events in our Gospel today, Jesus’ fame spread throughout Galilee. But Jesus’ commitment to the truth would later bring him into conflict with the Pharisees and the other powers-that-were. Still, Jesus did not shy away from the truth.

Do our leaders today have an authority founded on the truth? We may not be put in charge of others, but we can still have authority if we search for and hold on to the truth. Do we have this authority? Or do we hide our sins and failures behind double-talk and fake news?

Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, and it came out of the man. All were amazed, but Jesus did not perform the exorcism to astound people with miraculous feats. As it was with all the other people he healed, Jesus freed the man from his affliction because our Lord cared about him.

Scholars trace the root of the word authority to the Latin auctor. An auctor is someone who originates and creates – like an author writing a story. But auctor is more than this because it also has links to augere, to cause to grow and increase, to augment. A good image for an auctor who has author-ity is the general who yells “Jump!” and his soldiers ask, “How high?” But a better image is a gardener who seeks out drying roots and waters them, who ties splints to saplings about to break. Bruised reeds he will not break, and even trees he will transplant beside streams.

A person with real authority cares about people and not just his or her own concerns. Do our leaders today have an authority that looks out for the good of their constituents? Again, we may not have people under us, but if we always put others’ needs above our own, we can have authority. Do we have this authority? Or do we operate in the mode of every-man-for-himself and treat women like they do not exist at all?

In November of 2001, Pope John Paul II sent his first e-mail. To the surprise of many, it was a letter asking for forgiveness. JPII apologized unreservedly – the word the Pope himself used – for the sexual abuse cases perpetrated by the clergy, for how missionaries in China behaved during colonial times, and for the Church’s role in separating more than 30,000 Aboriginal children in Australia from their parents. He would have wanted to say sorry personally, but circumstances prevented him from traveling. The next best thing was to send that e-mail – his first ever e-mail, and because of this, the e-mail that would be most remembered.

Studying the papacy of JPII, these apologies should not have been that surprising. In 1992, he asked forgiveness for the Church’s condemnation of Galileo as a heretic. In 1993, he said sorry for the Church’s role in the African slave trade. In 1995, it was for the injustice women have suffered for centuries. In 1998, it was for the Church just standing by while millions were killed during the Holocaust. In 2000, it was for the crusaders’ attack on Constantinople which happened in 1204.

An elderly priest – who perhaps was not his best self and who was not having his best day – complained to me shortly after the e-mail was publicized, “What is this Pope doing? He is destroying the authority of the Church with all of these apologies!” I disagreed. I thought that JPII was strengthening the authority of the Church by confronting the truth – even if it was humbling – and trying to make amends and to repair the damage wrought. Authority does not mean you are never wrong; it means being honest enough to admit when you are and then trying to fix as much as possible what has been broken. Authority is about the truth.

I know the names of many presidents – from the Philippines, of course, some from the United States of America, and a few from other countries. But the name that inspires me the most is Robin Q. Garcia. I wrote a paper on him when I was in high school. He was a high school student himself and the president of his class. When the 1990 earthquake struck Cabanatuan, Robin’s school building collapsed. He was able to extricate himself from the debris, but then he went back in. It was because he promised his classmates, “Gagapang ako patungo sa labas. Maghintay kayo. Babalik ako upang mailigtas kayong lahat… tapang lang mga kasama.” Robin went back more than once and was able to help rescue at least five schoolmates and two teachers. Accounts differ, but some report that on his fourth crawl back into the rubble, an aftershock buried and killed the selfless hero. He lived out Jesus’ words, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep” (John 10:11). Authority is about care for others.

Today, think of the authority figures in your life. Thank the Lord for those people who helped you journey towards the truth and who cared for you along the way. Then look at yourself. Whether or not you have people to command, if you follow the truth, you have authority. Whether or not others call you “Sir,” “Ma’am,” or “Boss,” if you care for them like a friend, or sister, or brother, you have authority.

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