Authority must be exercised with justice, integrity

  • August 10, 2011

Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) Aug. 21 (Isaiah 22:15, 19-23; Psalm 138; Romans 11:33-36; Matthew 16:13-20)

People and institutions do not readily or easily relax their steely grip on power. Like this shadowy figure Shebna they come to believe that they have a right to office and position and that power once given is eternal. Shebna was denounced by Isaiah for arrogance, pride, court intrigue and engaging in power politics to counter the Assyrian threat.

Those addicted to power have not yet learned the lesson that our friend Shebna is about to learn: all legitimate authority is from God but it is conditional. The condition is that it be exercised with justice, integrity and mercy and that it always be above reproach. If it is not, God can and often will raise another person or group to power. We have seen this played out in our own lifetimes: dictators sent packing, brutal regimes brought low and corrupt officials disgraced. No one is exempt or immune — this applies equally to the political, economic and religious spheres. And when an institution, political or religious, fails to live up to God’s expectations it too must suffer and be purified. The key is accountability, not only to the people but to God. All power or authority is given for service to humanity and the common good and is not an innate or unlimited right. In this passage power was transferred to David and his descendants but they all fell short of God’s expectations, sometimes egregiously so and with catastrophic consequences.

It is a paradox: we say that God is an inscrutable mystery and then we fill libraries with the books we write describing the nature and the ways of God. God’s wisdom and judgment are indeed deep and His judgments and ways inscrutable. But we are not left totally in the dark. We are given the basic elements of the divine ways in the biblical teachings concerning justice, compassion, mercy and righteousness. They are like pointers guiding us to the transcendent. But there comes a time when we need to step back in respectful silence and not have the audacity to claim privileged communication with the divine or a private line to the heavenly court. Pious platitudes in the face of human tragedy or suffering, moralizing or smug assurance of knowing God’s will all fall into the category of overstepping human boundaries.

Why was Jesus pleased with Peter? This was not a quiz show and it was not giving the “correct” answer that brought such praise to Peter. Very simply, Peter had not been taken in by all the talk on the street concerning Jesus. And there was plenty of that floating around: prophet, John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah and so on. But Jesus is none of these and He presented His disciples with a very disturbing and pointed question: who do you say that I am? For once Peter was listening to the voice of God’s spirit within and the response from his mouth was both “correct” and a profound profession of faith. The identity and role of Jesus was revealed to him by God — it was not a result of reflection, learning or human reasoning. Such strong faith — likened by Jesus to a “rock” (Peter) — is the foundation of the Church and is found in varying degrees within individual believers.

The challenge is to develop this quality of both unshakable faith and sensitivity to the Spirit of God amidst the many conflicting voices of our world. Being the Rock does not smooth the way for Peter — he was a complicated man with many weaknesses. There will be failures — spectacular ones — but also great courage in proclaiming the Gospel that will end in martyrdom. It takes courage today to proclaim Jesus as the Messiah, the son of the Living God and there are also many combative and conflicting voices. We need to claim and own our own response rather than relying on others. When we listen to the deepest part of ourselves we can proclaim and live out in faith the “answer” that God’s Spirit places within our heart.