Proper 21A – Ezekiel 18: 1-4, 25-end; Matthew: 23-32

The Revd Dr Mark Bratton
Sunday 28th September, 2014

The former Chief Rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks, is perhaps one of the most distinguished religious thinkers of our age. He received a secular education in philosophy at Oxford and Cambridge Universities under the tutelage of some of England’s finest teachers. Nevertheless, in an interview he says that that the person who probably influenced him more than any other person in his life was a diminutive New York rabbi and scholar called Menachem Schneerson. He had heard about the rabbi through friends and after great difficulty finally managed to meet him personally. After asking the rabbi many philosophical questions and getting philosophical answers back, the great man reversed roles and started asking the young Sacks about his life and background and what he was going to do to change the face of Judaism.

Sacks recalls that he began to construct complex excuses for doing nothing, usually in sentences beginning “In the situation in which I find myself…” Then, according to Sacks,“the Rebbe did something which I think was quite unusual for him, he actually stopped me in mid-sentence. He said, "Nobody finds themselves in a situation; you put yourself in a situation. And if you put yourself in that situation, you can put yourself in another situation." Sacks declares: “That moment changed my life.” Sacks observed that most people thought that the most important fact about the rabbi was that he had many followers. However, this was wrong. “Good leaders create followers, but great leaders create leaders”.

That anecdote provides a very good lead into our Gospel passage for today. Both the New York rabbi and the rabbi Jesus have this in common. They both taught with authority. Earlier in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is identified as “one who taught with authority and not as the teachers of the law”. And in this morning’s gospel passage the chief priests and the elders of the people come to Jesus as he is teaching and challenge him, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?’ They are challenging Jesus’ legitimacy, his right to say and do the things that he has been saying and doing. This double-barreled question begs a deeper question: what do we mean or understand by the term ‘authority’?

We could say that there are two basic types of authority: formal authority and self-commending authority. Formal authority can refer to an authority you possess by virtue of your office. For example, the British Ambassador to a foreign country has an official authority vested in him by the state. Self-commending authority, in contrast, is an authority that derives from the personal qualities of the individual. For example, a journalist specializing in the politics of the Middle East will possess a knowledge and expertise about the region that will command the attention of those wishing to know more about the subject.
It is of course possible to possess both types of authority. You can be an Ambassador and at the same time possess a very deep knowledge of the country for which you are diplomatically responsible.

What kind of authority does Jesus possess? There is no evidence that Jesus occupied an official position of any kind. The evidence suggests that he was Galilean peasant, a boy from the provinces, who nevertheless exhibited three striking qualities that undergirded his personal authority. Firstly, Jesus had vision. Secondly, he had intelligence. Thirdly, he had charisma.

Firstly, Jesus had vision. At the very centre of his message was a vision of the Kingdom of God. Jesus looked forward to a time when God’s rule would pervade the entire universe leading to a transformed heaven and a transformed earth. God will vanquish the forces of domination and oppression finally and permanently. There will be no more death, or mourning, or crying, or pain, for the old order of things will have passed. Every man and women will sit at peace under the shade of their vine, and every family under heaven will gather, united in their worship of the one God. The tax collectors and prostitutes alike will have a place at the table in God’s kingdom.

Secondly, Jesus had intelligence. By any standards, Jesus was highly intelligent. He seems to have had extraordinary mental processing power as his repeatedly witty and devastating ripostes to his questioners testify. Here, he flummoxes them with a question about John the Baptist. However, Jesus also had wisdom, that capacity to see into the hearts of people and things. As the Gospels say, “he could tell what was in a man”. The same could perhaps be said of Rabbi Schneerson. He had very great learning, but also very deep insight with power to change the lives of those who, like Lord Sacks, encountered him.

Thirdly, Jesus had charisma. A few people have a compelling charm or attractiveness and a rare talent or aptitude that inspires devotion in others. The crowds followed Jesus. But Jesus was not merely a good leader who generated followers; he also created leaders, Peter, John James, the Twelve and the Seventy-Two. Moreover, Jesus not only created leaders but also fashioned them out of unpromising material. Recall the vacillating Peter, the thunderous James and John, and the skeptical Thomas. Yet this motley crew changed the face of the earth.

However, there is a deeper dimension to Jesus’ authority, which surpasses even that of great Rabbi Schneerson. We use the English word ‘authority’ to translate the Greek word exousia (ex = “out of”; ousia = “being”). Jesus’ authority was an expression of his being, his very nature as the Son of God. The Letter to the Hebrews puts it beautifully: “The Son is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being”. As you can appreciate, if this is truly the case, this kind of authority is impossible to legitimate in human terms. If Jesus is God, Jesus authority is its own legitimation. When John the Baptist baptises Jesus, God the Father declares, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased, listen to him”.

There is the world of difference between ‘taking’ authority and ‘having’ authority. There are many way of taking authority and it can be in ways that are legitimate or illegitimate. Having authority, however, is a profoundly different matter. All of us are capable of having authority because we all have the capacity for an inner life. Whether we realise the authority which is latent within us is a matter of personal responsibility for which we shall eventually have to render account to God. Too many of us choose to live ‘surface’ lives beguiled by the trappings of a worldly view of ‘authority’. Perhaps our ‘celebrity’ culture is the most obvious contemporary manifestation of this spirit of superficiality. It may inspire devoted followings, but it does not draw people into the depths or produce leaders. Menachem Schneerson may not have been the Son of God, nor did he claim to be, but he had an authority, which emerged from the deepest recesses of his being, and which made him such an attractive, compelling and transformative personality.

Is there anyone here capable of changing a person’s life in a moment as Schneerson did Sacks'. We are the descendants of those first disciples who motley as they were transformed the world of their day. We have the same inheritance they received. We have the Gospel, the promise of the presence of God with Us until the end of the age and the freedom that the Spirit of God brings. We have all we need to make a difference to ourselves, our church, and the world of which we are inescapably a part.

AMEN.

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