Saturday, January 28, 2012

Authority and Accountability

They were all amazed, and kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey Him.” (Mark 1.27)

Shameful—or Shameless?

Hull House, Chicago’s legendary haven of social progress, closed its doors on Friday. Rumors that financial duress might shut down the landmark, co-founded in 1889 by Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr, have been floating for a while. Those who cared about its survival waited for a big push to keep it alive. None came. Instead, Hull House just ceased to be. No one could explain how it could suffer such an ignoble fate. Who dropped the ball? Less than a mile away, the same question arose in our city morgue, backlogged with indigent corpses denied burial because of flagrant mismanagement. While Chicagoans grappled with these abominable situations, two states over—at the University of Michigan—President Obama cited poor administration as the chief reason why spiraling education costs now generate more personal debt than credit cards. The rudeness of these realities struck very real nerves in a society already scraped raw by the widening gap between haves and have-nots. We’re hard-pressed to hold someone accountable for these and other misdeeds, even though identifying villains at this late date won’t undo the harms afflicting us.

The ruder reality we won’t face is this: accountability rests with us. Our neglect permitted these problems to reach crisis level. Contentment to authorize self-serving and incompetent officials is what got us here. And we’re so far beyond fixing the system it’s time we own up to the rudest reality of all. If we don’t change our laissez-faire attitude about the least among us, sorely needed change for the benefit of all is a lifeless dream. Systemic failures on every front attest to the shameful—or is it shameless?—apathy of everyone in the system. None of us is without blame. And Sunday’s readings (Deuteronomy 18.15-20; Psalm 111, 1 Corinthians 8.1-13, and Mark 1.21-28) come along just in time to re-teach us what accountability means and how authority works.

The Delicate Balance

Stepping through the texts, we see sharp indicators of malaise—all of them wanting for greater care and courage. In Deuteronomy 18, Moses prepares Israel to move forward in his absence, telling them to anticipate a new prophet whose authority will be evidenced by his credibility. Moses quotes God directly in verses 19 and 20, warning, “Anyone who does not heed the words that the prophet shall speak in My name, I Myself will hold accountable. But any prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, or who presumes to speak in My name a word that I have not commanded the prophet to speak—that prophet shall die.” Psalm 111 goes one step further, tying credibility to performance: “The works of God’s hands are faithful and just; all God’s precepts are trustworthy.” (v7) But the psalmist also shifts the focus back to us. In verse 10, we read, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding.” Knowing what’s right requires us to do what’s right in a specific way. Proof we heed Christ’s teachings is found in thoughtful care we take to live out Christ’s principles.

This idea reemerges in 1 Corinthians 8, where Paul invokes the doctrine of uniform priesthood, which authorizes every believer to speak God’s Word and vests us with responsibility to demonstrate God’s precepts in action. Addressing an Early Church controversy about diet (explored in an earlier post, Watch What You Eat), Paul calls us to balance Christian authority to overturn Mosaic Law with accountability for how we exercise our freedom. If rightful taking of faith’s liberty causes others to doubt, Paul says we’re doing it wrong. It’s not about what God’s grace allows us to do, but the grace we exemplify in doing it. Relief in knowing Christ freed us from arcane Old Testament edicts doesn’t relieve our duty to act responsibly for the sake of those who’ve not accepted freedoms we enjoy. The delicate balance between authority and accountability becomes the focal point in Sunday’s Gospel, where Jesus models how both are handled.

In the Raw

The curtain rises on Capernaum, a progressive community that welcomes Jesus. It’s the Sabbath. He enters the synagogue and Mark 1.22 says the people are “astounded at His teaching, for He taught them as One having authority, and not as the scribes.” Jesus’s unorthodox approach sidesteps traditional methods of breaking down religious legalese in order to reveal divine principles in the raw. His manner conveys godly authority, and the congregants respond in keeping with Deuteronomy 18 and Psalm 111’s expectations. When the truth of Christ’s message resonates with them, they accept it. Then something unexpected occurs to ratify their trust.

A man tormented by an unclean spirit bolts out of the crowd, howling, “What have You to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have You come to destroy us? I know Who You are, the Holy One of God.” (v24) Before observing Jesus’s response, we note four key details. The man’s presence speaks to the congregation’s openness. Most synagogues would ban him—and be legally and politically correct in doing so. But the Capernaum faith community opens its arms to him. Second, for his sake, it also overlooks the edict prohibiting work on the Sabbath; opposition Jesus encounters elsewhere when working miracles on the Lord’s Day isn’t raised in Capernaum. Third, the raw force of Christ’s message vexes harmful impulses holding the man captive. They hear threats, not hope, and instantly become confrontational. Finally, the man’s cry rings out in two voices: one of fear and resistance, spoken in schizophrenic plurality (“us”), and another that confesses faith and wholeness (“I know Who You are”).

Jesus immediately shuts the paranoid delusions down. “Be silent, and come out of him!” He commands. (v25) They don’t go quietly; Mark reports the man is seized with convulsions before they depart. But the melodramatic tantrum is no match for Christ’s power. Jesus’s accountability for the man’s welfare—despite his condition labeling him “undesirable”—reaffirms His authority to speak truth to power. Verse 27 reads, “They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, ‘What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey Him.’” We have to love that Jesus doesn’t exploit the chance to show off. He doesn’t make a case for ignoring Sabbath traditions to justify His actions. He doesn’t question the man’s right to be there. He doesn’t turn to the crowd and say, “Watch this.” He simply speaks the truth God gives Him and then acts on it. And the people are amazed.

“Why Should I Be Bound?”

Taking authority over the world’s evils—including those that seek to torment us—demands taking responsibility for the least among us. Arguing legalities and logic with those they hold captive only proves we’re not yet free to speak truth to power. Sure, it’s awfully convenient to shut out undesirables who disrupt our lives with foul thoughts and attitudes. Yet if we keep them away, how will they find help? And how will our witness prove true? Freedom in Christ doesn’t give us the right to show off. It entitles us to lift those enslaved by fear and doubt out of captivity. Today’s Gospel teaches freedom is a privilege best served by setting people free. It authorizes us by expanding our accountability beyond what’s best for us, so others may experience liberating faith and wholeness.

“The fear of the LORD” that Psalm 111 mentions is nothing to be afraid of. It’s the canny understanding that we’ve received the raw truth of the Gospel, and with it the raw power of freedom in Christ. A late friend and songwriter put it like this: “Why should I be bound, when Christ has set me free?” That’s the burning question at the bottom of our moral and political decay. Not, “Who dropped the ball?” But, “Why aren’t we changing the game?”

Teach us, O God, to weigh the delicate balance of embracing Christian authority and accountability for our deeds. Stir in us authentic passion to exercise faith’s freedoms by setting people free. Grant us audacity not only to speak truth to power, but also to act on it. Amen.

We've been given authority over evil in order to lift those enslaved by fear and doubt. Through Christ, we have the power to change the game.

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