I’ve written a couple of times on the topic of authority, but it seems to be a popular one in the Gospels. Sunday’s lesson is bookended by it. In the Synagogue, the crowds were first astounded by Jesus’ teaching, for he taught as one with authority. Then, after he heals the man with the evil spirit, they are amazed (a different Greek word, btw), again because of the authority with which Jesus both taught and acted. This shouldn’t surprise us. I don’t mean we shouldn’t be surprised that Jesus had such authority, though if we believe him to be the Son of God, we shouldn’t be. What shouldn’t surprise us in this story is the reaction of the crowd.
True authority is so rare in this world. It is true today. One need only to look at Washington, DC or Frankfort, KY to see that many who claim to be leaders lack any real authority. It was, it seems, equally true in Palestine in the first century. It is also true that people are hungry for leaders who have true authority.
My favorite definition of authority comes from the Rev. Dr. Craig Koester, Vice President of Academic Affairs at Luther Seminary. In a commentary on the “all authority” passage in Matthew 28, Koester defines authority as “followability.” Many people follow many leaders because they have to. Plenty of governments, businesses, and even churches operate this way. Someone is in a position of authority because of a job title, and others follow because they say so. In the case of the authority of Jesus, it seems clear that people followed him not because they had to, but because they wanted to. People were drawn to Jesus not because he was born in the right place or studied at the right school or was the son of the High Priest, but because God had poured out on him the gifts that are necessary to bring people along.
One of the things we don’t like to talk about in the church very much is this type of real authority. In the name of the cult of nice, we don’t put much stock in followability when it comes to raising up leaders, both lay and ordained. I can’t help but wonder if we do this to our own detriment. The Gospel writers were not afraid to name the authority of Jesus. Jesus, as he commissioned his disciples to be apostles, was not afraid to name their authority. As the Church seeks leaders, we ought not be afraid to seek those who have that natural followability, the true authority that comes with giftedness rather than position and education.