"The great image of authority: a dog's obeyed in office."  A farmer's dog can bark at a beggar and be obeyed because he's a farmer's dog and not for anything that he is in himself.  Elsewhere Shakespeare mentions "the insolence of office," and generally he leaves the impression that he suffered as much as anyone from authority and officialdom.

               It is of the greatest interest to see how Jesus faced people in authority.  His way is ultimately the model for how we ourselves are to face authority, as we do every day, in one way or another. 

               It is not a pleasant thing when a policeman approaches you and says, "Documents!"  It is like being asked what right you have to exist.  Jesus was asked precisely this kind of question one day in the Temple. "The chief priests, the scribes and the elders" approached him: these were the three component sections of the Sanhedrin, the supreme religious authority of the Jews. They questioned his authority to teach.

               When authorities are quick to question people's authority, it is because their own authority is the uppermost thing in their consciousness.  He had innate authority, but theirs was borrowed: that is why they felt so threatened.  The weaker a man is, the more he will insist on his authority and privileges.  I heard someone say: if you gave a man a nose who never had one, he would be blowing it all day!  But Jesus was in no way intimidated by them, though they had power of life and death over him, as they proved in the sequel.  Shakespeare spoke of "Art made tongue-tied by authority," but Jesus was not lost for words; he defeated the official deputation in debate.  Many a heroic stance by Christians was inspired by his strength, his manliness. 

               In the gospels there are seven occasions when Jesus healed on the sabbath.  Far from winning the Pharisees' admiration, he incurred their implacable opposition by these healings, because he was breaking the rules they had deduced from the Law of Moses.  He was invited to a meal in a Pharisee's house on the sabbath, and the gospel says, "they were watching him" (Lk 14:1).  Not good for the digestion!  How would you feel if you were invited to a meal and you knew it was really a trap?  The sick man may have been planted there deliberately; or he may just have walked in, as people were free to do.  Jesus was fully aware of all this; he was used to it! 

               Imagine the meal, and the insincere talk.  Imagine the pre-cooked food.  In a Pharisee's house everything would have been according to the Law  -  or rather according to their own grindingly narrow version of it.  Food had to be cooked the day before the sabbath (because cooking was work) and kept hot till the sabbath  -  but in such a way that it was not further cooked!  There were dozens of regulations about how this was to be done. 

               Suddenly Jesus swept aside the falsity of the situation and, without being asked, he healed the man.  A false atmosphere is as false as the worst kind of lie. 

               Jesus defied human authorities when he had to, but he was not against authority in principle.  "Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar's,"  he said (Mt 22:21).  People who are against authority in principle are often simply looking for authority themselves.  But the ultimate words about authority are surely his: "The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve."

               How extraordinary it is that we Christians exempt ourselves from his strictures on the scribes and Pharisees!  -  as if everything in the gospels was about Jewish clergy only.  "I am with you always; yes, to the end of time," he promised (Mt 28:20).  Does this mean that he always supports us as we are?  I dare say it does not.  He is with us always, yes, to challenge us even more severely than he challenged the scribes and Pharisees; more severely, because we claim to speak in his name.

Donagh O'Shea

These are brief articles, one per month,
on a wide variety of topics concerning the living of the Christian life.