Harrowing Of Hell
January 31, 2021

Authority and Liberation

The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

Good morning. We have a short piece of scripture today that revolves around the word authority, and so, with the authority vested with me, that is the word that I am going to preach about today.

Let’s begin by reviewing where we are: Jesus is in Galilee. He has just begun choosing his disciples. There is Peter and Andrew, and then there is James and John. They are in Capernaum when the Sabbath arrives, so, Jesus does what he does, he goes to the synagogue; and as a rabbi takes the seat of the teacher.

The crowd gathers and as Jesus works his way through the scripture, and the people are astounded, and turned to one another exclaiming: “He teaches with authority, not like the scribes.” Ouch! if you’re a scribe.

Which brings us back to the word authority: What do they mean: “Jesus teaches with authority?” Well, to begin with, they were used to a different type of teaching content. You see, in those days Rabbis taught from a particular school of thought. Rabbis were taught by other Rabbis, who were taught by other Rabbis, that, over time, created particular teaching traditions. And so, a Rabbi wasn’t known for his own teaching authority, but rather the authority of the school of thought he taught.

Jesus was different. He spoke very concretely, using real-world examples to make the point that God was right here, right now; like a fisherman fishing for people; or lilies of the field; or a farmer, a path, and some seeds. This was plain language that had its own inherent logic, because of how specifically it connected to the world around them. It was memorable and tangible and obvious. No filters needed, and it felt liberating. Jesus didn’t teach people so they knew stuff, he taught people so the presence of God could be revealed. That was liberating!

“Liberating from what?” you may be wondering: The patterns of authority that gripped their lives. And here is the interesting thing, the patterns of authority that gripped their lives is the same authority that grips our lives as well.

So, we are going to look briefly at three of these types of authority based on a biblical review of the word authority itself. This is pretty academic stuff so take out your notebooks!

There are three authority structures in particular to review: jurisdictional, positional, and qualitative. You with me? Jurisdictional, positional, and qualitative.

The jurisdictional authority has to do with superstructures of administration, like a county or a country or an empire. These jurisdictions generally transcend personal power.

Next is positional authority, which is power that comes from titles and positions and ranks set in hierarchy and often serves jurisdictional authority or cultural norms.       

Finally, there is qualitative authority where a stronger person has power over a weaker person, a smarter person has power over a less bright person.

These were the three types of authority that ruled the lives of the people who came to the synagogue that day, and when they heard Jesus speak, they said, “Hey, wait a minute, we have a different kind of authority at work here.”  It is an authority that seemed transport the hearer beyond jurisdictional and positional and qualitative authority; liberating them, without releasing them from the responsibility of these types of authority.

We’ll circle back to this in a moment, but first there is another interesting thing to note. While jurisdictional and positional and qualitative authority all apply power in different ways, when they are each working well, they work well for the same reason; and when they are each working poorly, they work poorly for the same reason.

Here is why: All of these authorities are managed and maintained around the interlocking systems of trust and consequence. They work well when trust is strong and consequences fair, They work poorly when trust is low and consequences unfair.

Are you with me? We have these three authorities: jurisdictional and positional and qualitative. They have different realms of influence and power, and yet, they all work either well or poorly based on credibility of trust and consequence.

Let me give you a few examples (told you you’d need a notebook). A police-officer (positional authority on behalf of jurisdictional authority) writes my wife a parking ticket (hypothetically) based on the authority vested in him by laws set by the city of Seattle. If she doesn’t pay penalties will be enforced. And she will, if she trusts that these laws are meted out fairly.

When jurisdictional authority doesn’t maintain the balance of trust and consequence it moves from authority to authoritarian. That is what the people in the synagogue where Jesus was teaching experienced from Rome first-hand, and they saw it play out in their lives through agents of positional power, like tax collectors and soldiers. Positional authority is also based on the trust consequence model, and when the correct balance is not achieved, these relationships slip from authoritative to abusive.

Finally, there is qualitative authority, which is drawn from either endowed gifts, or learned skills applied to particular situations. So, for example, when I climbed Mountain Rainier, the authority for the climb was held by the guide both because she was physically superior, and because she had climbed the mountain 100 times before.

In Jesus’ day, Pharisees were qualitative authorities due to their command of Jewish law. Parents also fall into this category… because they are older and bigger and smarter. Qualitative authority, like the other authorities, works within a trust consequence system, and when this system gets out of whack it becomes oppressive.

Every one of us, in some way, holds a piece of jurisdictional, and positional, and qualitative authority. We know what it feels like to both apply this authority and be subject to this authority- and so did the people sitting in the synagogue listening to Jesus… and when they heard him speak they said: “Hey, wait a minute, there is yet another kind of authority out there!”

It is an authority not based on system, position, or capacity, nor mediated through trust and consequence, but rather an authority of revelation and transformation meted out through love… It is an authority that embraces jurisdictional, positional, and qualitative, and then elevates them to their rightful place in the Kingdom of God.

In other words, while these three authorities were still real and necessary, there was a new authority that made them make more sense. It was like suddenly knowing that trees were part of forests. 

So, when mediated through love, jurisdictional authority transformations communities; positional authority creates wise leaders; qualitative authority inspires men with big muscles and women with sharp minds to help their neighbors.

But not everyone was enamored with this new authority. Enter the man with a demon. Now, for us “modern people,” the demon example can shut down our imagination… because there is “no such thing as demons.” So, for the sake of this sermon, let’s shift the “demon” from friend of devil, to toxic thought pattern. Examples might be lust, greed, envy, or shame.

We’ll pick one. How about greed? That should work. So, now let’s explore what this greedy demoniac’s relationship with authority might be like. Well, when jurisdiction authority is applied he might perceive particular laws, or necessary taxes as confining him or stealing from him.

But, if he were a tax collector greed might guide how he does his work. If he were a husband greed might have been meted out through how the family spent money, or who could spend money, and for what. His obsessions with money and how to earn it or invest it or scam it, might reflect his qualitative authority. And so, we can understand how demonic greed could be wrapped up in authority, and how greed might perceived the authority of love as a threat.

He hears Jesus teach and cries out: “Have you come to destroy me?”  Have you come to destroy the way I apply my authority for my personal benefit?  And so, it is revealed… when confronted with Jesus’ liberating authority we must decide if we will tear off the old “demonic” cloak of toxic thinking.

But here is the promise, what Jesus is offering is better. Jesus will never diminish us; he will only liberate us to our better self. We are the prize, not the enemy. The enemy is the greed, or whatever demon we have bound ourselves to… So, if we are open to Jesus, to his liberating, revelatory love, we will be able to drill down to the deeper good, and allow Jesus to change our life. He has done it before. He did it in the synagogue that day.

That was the liberating authority the people witnessed, and the authority that allowed them to embrace their own jurisdictional, and positional, and qualitative authority to be employed through love toward widespread transformation and revelation. It is love that allows jurisdictional authority to never become authoritarian. It is love that allows positional authority to never become abusive. It is love that allows qualitative authority to never become oppressive.

This was a revolutionary authority and it shook the power structures of Jesus’ day, because it revealed the underlying authority, the true authority of the Kingdom of God…and that is an authority that changed the world, and continues to do so.