Fellow Passengers: This week’s Primary Passage (Mark 11:20-33) transports me to the 1999 credentials committee room of the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting in Atlanta’s World Congress Center, where a furious microphone monitor is attempting to verify the real identity of the person who slipped by his watch and made a motion on the floor in front of God and everybody under the pseudonym Arnold Ziffel. I won’t go into the whole sordid story here, but suffice it to say that once the Atlanta police got involved, there was a heavy exchange of verbage between the faux Hooterville hog and the denominational bureaucrat, along the lines of “what gives you the right?” and “who do you think you are?” Thank goodness, the half-baked hall monitor never got my name and the policeman gave me leave with nothing more than a stern warning.
The religious bureaucrats in today’s passage could have easily been typecast to play the parts of convention hall monitor and credentials committee. And just a day earlier Jesus had done his own dramatic disrupting of the chief priests’ annual Passover convention (not to imply any similarity between the Savior and a fictional swine impersonator). Like an arsonist he was right back at the scene of the crime where he had lit a fire under the temple leadership. The monitors wasted no time drawing attention to him and attempting to discredit him. “Show us your credentials. Who died and made you king?”
Just as he had overturned the tables of the moneychangers, Jesus turned the tables on the credentials committee by asking them to show their own credentials – which faction did they represent in the John the Baptist controversy? Their inability to answer revealed the deep-seated fear that lay beneath their show of strength. The powers were afraid of the plebes. And Jesus, before consenting to hang on a cross, left these religious folk hanging.
It seems to me that many of us in the faith community today are still left hanging when it comes to issues of authority. We are living in a day when the Toquevillian trust in “mediating insitutions” – those systems that are supposed to convey social norms and values to individuals – is crumbling around us. The family, the church, the denomination, the public school, the media – these and other traditional spheres of authority are in serious jeopardy and are fast losing credibility. And in the absence of these once-viable institutions that integrated individuals into the larger world, we now seem to fall prey to every blowhard with a bullhorn who tells us what we want to hear. Some folks will assign credible authority to Glenn Beck’s bullhorn, and believe whatever fear-mongering statement he might make about left-wing/socialist conspiracy, no matter how incredible. Others assign credible authority to Al Sharpton’s bullhorn, and believe whatever fear-mongering statement he might make about right-wing/fascist conspiracy, no matter how incredible. The point is not how much truth or falsehood flows from either bullhorn; the point is that people who have “authorized” either of them would never be convinced by counter-evidence, because the evidence would be “un-authorized.”
I don’t claim to be free from such assignments of authority. But I do know that Jesus cuts through all this, embodying an authority that does not monger fear of any kind, but casts it all out through the power of love, as in-credible as that may sound. So my criteria for what is true should not be based on who mediates that truth for me or whose bullhorn is being blown – but by the criteria of Jesus’ life and teaching. Will this government policy help me welcome the stranger or will it alienate the stranger from me? Will this idea being spouted help me to love my enemies – including my political and ideological foes – or will it reinforce a cycle of animosity? Will this strategy help me be more generous and less captive to possessions, or will it strengthen the grip of greed? Those are some of the questions I have to ask when discerning the authority of Jesus at work in the world.
As always, your comments are welcome.