Day 14: The Problem of Authority

23 Feb The Problem of Authority

Illustration: Juliana Crownover

Elijah was commanded to set out for Zarephath of the Sidonians in order that he might be fed there by a widow…Why was it that no Jewish widow merited to offer food to blessed Elijah, and he was sent to a Gentile woman to be fed? That widow to whom the prophet was sent prefigured the Church…Thus, Elijah came to the widow because Christ was to come to the Church.

Augustine (d. 430), Bishop of Hippo.[i]


Opening Prayer

O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.[ii]

Old Testament Lesson

The prophet Elijah, as God’s representative, was in the midst of a spat with King Ahab, one of the worst rulers in Israel’s history. Ahab had set up altars to Baal, a fertility goddess who was also in charge of rain. In an arid region, rain was critical for life. So Elijah the prophet threatened Ahab with a drought, a convenient way to demonstrate that loyalty to Baal was worthless. The problem was that innocents were caught up in the suffering alongside the King. God had Elijah leave Israelite territory and travel north up the Mediterranean coast to Zarephath, a Gentile region.[iii] The widow he met was almost out of flour and about to die of starvation. Yet the widow responded with great faith and was saved from the calamity of the drought. Note especially the widow’s reference to “your” God. She does not know Elijah’s God yet God has mercy on her and saves her. As a result, early Christian interpreters read this story spiritually as a sign prefiguring the coming of the Church which would include the Gentiles. The flour and oil that did not run out are the surpassing spiritual riches the Church brought to the Gentiles in the form of the Gospel and the Sacraments.

1 Kings 17.8-16

8Then the word of the LORD came to me, saying, 9”Rise up, go to Zarephath in the Sidonian region, and stay there. Look, I have commanded a widow there to supply you with food.” 10So Elijah got up and went to Zarephath and he entered into the gate of the city, and right there was a widow gathering sticks. So he called to her and said, “Please bring me a little water in a cup so I might drink.”

11As she went to get it, he called to her again and said, “Please also bring for me a piece of bread with your hand.” 12She said, “As the LORD your God lives, I have nothing except a handful of flour in a jar and little oil in a jug. Look, here I am gathering a couple sticks so that I can go in and make one last thing for myself and my son so we might eat it and then die of starvation.”

13Then Elijah said to her, “Do not be afraid. Go in, prepare it as you have said. But first make a small cake of bread there and bring it out to me. Then afterwards go prepare something for yourself and your son. 14For thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, ‘Your jar of flour will not run out and your jug of oil will not be empty until the day the LORD gives rain upon the face of the land.’” 15So she went and did according to what Elijah told her. And she ate – the woman and Elijah and her household ate for days. 16The jar of flour did not run out and the jug of oil did not become empty, just as the LORD promised by the hand of Elijah.

New Testament Lesson

Jesus presents a difficult-to-understand command in this passage. His hearers should follow the teachings of the Scribes and Pharisees, but not their actions. This is confusing because Jesus specifically rejects the teachings of the Pharisees as ‘blind leaders of the blind’ just several verses later (23.16-22). The point Jesus seems to be making is that we are to respect religious authority even when it is imperfect (as it no doubt often is). To be humble and quiet while put upon by inadequate leadership is a sign of maturity. The Scribes and Pharisees no doubt thought they were doing a good thing by keeping the people from sinning in a grievous way. They wanted to tie up their people in severe regulations so they would never think of disobeying one of the core markers of their covenant relationship. But, in so doing, they were harming their communities, not helping them. However, even amidst their poor teaching, Jesus wants his people to respect them, exhorting them to look to Christ for what true character entails. Some have employed this text to claim that the practice of calling priests “father” is unscriptural, but this misses the point. The point isn’t the title, but what our use of the title says about our confession. God is the source of all true teaching and is the standard to which we are to conform, no matter what human authorities say. A true Christian teacher who lacks humility and seeks worldly acclaim is an oxymoron.[iv]

Matthew 23.1-12

1Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and his disciples, 2saying, “The Scribes and the Pharisees sit on the seat of Moses. 3Therefore everything they tell you, do it and keep it. But don’t act according to their works, since they don’t practice what they preach. 4See, they tie up heavy burdens (which are hard to bear) and place them on the shoulders of men, but aren’t even willing to lift a finger to remove them. 5They do all their works so they can be seen by men. For they make their phylacteries wide and their outer fringes long. 6And they love the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, 7as well as greetings in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by men.

8But you are not to be called Rabbi, for you have one teacher and you are all brethren. 9And don’t call anyone your ‘father’ on earth for you have one Father who is in heaven. 10Nor are you to be called ‘teacher’ since the Christ is your only teacher.

11But whoever is greatest among you will be your servant. 12Whoever exalts himself will be humbled and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”

Questions for Reflection

  1. Is it fair that God causes everyone to suffer because of King Ahab’s bad decisions in our OT passage? Is God’s justice always fair? How should we define fair? What might this tell us about God?
  2. Jesus tells us to not worry about what we’ll eat, since he cares for us (Matt 6.25). Have you ever been in a position to have to rely on God fully for your provision? If not, do you believe he would provide for you?
  3. Why is arrogance and self-aggrandizement such a persistent problem? What is it about the human heart that desires attention from others?
  4. In what ways are you desperate for others to notice you or to like you? How well could you live if no one noticed you for an extended period of time? Are you comfortable with yourself just as God created you?

Reflection by Kevin Dodge (email)

Both of our lessons today take as their backdrop the problems that come to communities through poor leadership. No one wants to live in anarchy, that state where the survival of the fittest is the rule and where the law of the jungle is the norm. Thomas Hobbes described it memorably as the “state of nature” in his book Leviathan, in which he argued that we must voluntarily surrender some of our natural freedoms to avoid chaos:

Whoever therefore lives in a time of war, where every man is enemy to every man; the same lives without [any] other security than what their own strength and their own invention shall furnish them. In such condition, there is no place for industry because the fruit thereof is uncertain and consequently [there is] no culture…and which is worst of all, [there is] continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of man is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.[v]

Hobbes may have been too pessimistic, but most agree that we do need some authority to keep order and to allow for human flourishing. This is true for almost any community.

Yet authorities are constantly disappointing us. We have a tendency to look back to some mythical golden age when leaders were courageous, thoughtful and always did the right thing. Search through history and you will have a difficult time locating such a golden age. But we look for it nevertheless.

This problem of leadership becomes particularly acute in the Church. Spiritual leaders are supposed to be God’s representatives. They are supposed to declare God’s Word fearlessly, to show us how to live the spiritual life, and to administer the Sacraments faithfully. They are supposed to model true righteousness for us. Yet we quickly come to the disillusioning reality that our leaders are also human and thus prone to falter.

This problem is obviously on display in the Anglican Communion, where several vociferous groups assert their will on various issues, no matter what tradition, the Scriptures, ecumenical partners and the rest of the Communion thinks. Then their opponents simply walk off and leave, forcing the Church to split and in many cases to shut its doors. This is not how it’s supposed to work. It is far better to be trod upon than to split the Church.

The answer to these problems lies in greater humility on the part of everyone. It takes hundreds, sometimes thousands of years, to discern whether some new movement or idea is something that has come from God. For example, who would have guessed after five hundred years of recrimination that Lutherans and Catholics would find room for agreement on the key issue of justification, realizing that their polemics had accomplished little?[vi] Who would have guessed that Anglicans would find agreement with the Orthodox Church on important issues in Christology? But this has happened very recently.[vii] We are one of the rare generations that has seen glimmers of the Church coming closer together rather than farther apart.

One of the hardest things we will ever have to do in the spiritual life is to respect authority, even when it’s wrong. We do this not out of some warmed-over desire for moderation or to keep a tenuous peace at all costs. We do it because, once again, we’re told to love our neighbor, even when it’s impossibly hard.

The lowly will be exalted and the great humbled. If you’re feeling trod upon and let down by your leadership, you may be in the best position of all.

Potential Applications

  • Pray

Take some time to pray for the leadership of the parish, the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion. Pray that the Church at large might find a way back to greater union and harmony. This is what Jesus intended when he prayed, “Father, keep them in your name which you have given me that they may be one, even as we are one.” (John 17.11)

  • Evangelize

God sent his prophet Elijah to a Gentile area to alleviate the suffering of one woman and to provide a picture of what the Church was to do for the world. Find someone who needs to hear about Jesus and tell them about your experience. Perhaps invite them to church or to a Bible Study.

  • Lead

Leaders are servants. Find a group within your parish that is not being served well and find a way to serve them. As Paul writes, “In one body we have many members, but all the members do not have the same function” (Rom 12.4). Perhaps read all of Romans 12 in which Paul lays out the many gifts required for the Church to function well.


[i] Marco Conti, ed., 1-2 Kings, 1-2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther (Downers Grove, Il: IVP Academic, 2008), 103–104.

[ii] The Book of Common Prayer, 815.

[iii] Simon DeVries, 1 Kings, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word Publishers, 2004), 216.

[iv] Luz, Matthew 21-28, 107.

[v] Thomas Hobbes, Hobbes: Leviathan, ed. Richard Tuck (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 13.62, p. 89. Note: I have changed several words in this quote for ease of reading.

[vi] Lutheran World Federation and Catholic Church, Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000).

[vii], Accessed 12-5-2015.

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