There is authority and authority. When Jesus walked this earth, people were amazed because he spoke with authority. What made his exercise of authority so special? He did not speak like the professional teachers of the day, the Scribes and the Pharisees. So then, what was it about his teaching that was so different? Why were the people so astounded by His message? And why did they say He offered “a new teaching with authority.”
The word ‘authority’ is derived from the Latin word ‘auctoritas’ and has several meanings: invention, advice, opinion, influence, command or power. People usually associate authority with power, and people in positions of power are said to exercise authority over others by their statements, commands, influence or laws.
What made Jesus’ exercise of authority so different from all other exercises of authority was that, for Him, authority was synonymous with service which is action driven by love of God and one’s fellow man. He refused to lord it over others like those who condemned him, such as the crafty King Herod, the wily politician, Pontius Pilate, and the self-righteous pharisees. No wonder they crucified Him! He threatened their modus operandi. He did not speak like these professional rulers and teachers who quoted other authorities such as the prophets, the Scriptures or Caesar for their own benefit. No, Jesus spoke from the depths of His heart, and His words had power to penetrate the hearts of His listeners and bring them, not only to awareness, but to conversion. His words in a Synagogue were so powerful that they drove an evil spirit right out of a man (Mark 1:26).
Jesus changed authority from attachment to positions of power to service of others. Would that people today who possess power over others, exercise it in the true spirit of service. The abuse of authority is one of the greatest evils in Church and State today. It was behind the sex abuse crisis in the Church; it was what triggered the global financial crisis of 2008; and it is the reason why so many people distrust political, business, and ecclesiastical establishments. True authority has the power to set people free because it is geared to serve the common good rather than the self-interest of those who exploit their positions of leadership.
Jesus’ authority flowed from the purest font of truth which He possessed as the Son of God. His words and deeds demonstrated an authority that was only of God. All those who came to believe in Him when He preached in Palestine, and all those who believe in Him still have been renewed spiritually. That is true authority. No wonder the Son of God could convey His most sublime teaching of the Beatitudes in the simplest way; no wonder He could give us the Lord’s Prayer in words that even a child can grasp; and no wonder He taught by stories or parables that ordinary people can relate to!
Jesus changed authority from the exercise of power to faithful, loving service. He came, not to be served but to serve. This is the kind of authority worth believing in.
Fr. Hugh Duffy