JesusShannyn Fuerst, Seattle, WA

Warm-up Questions

Who is in charge of your life? Who is in charge at work? At home? At school?  At daycare?  At church? What gives them authority or power?

Who Has Authority?

I was listening to a story on NPR’s This American Life about Malcolm Gladwell, who writes for the New Yorker and has written a number of well-known books. He talked about his first job, writing for the Washington Post newspaper. Malcolm sat at the business desk and for six weeks he did pretty much nothing. Someone finally took pity on him and told him to write a story on the business earnings of a local bioscience company.  However,  he mistakenly wrote that the company lost $5 million in the previous quarter, when in fact they had made $5 million in the previous quarter. 

On the morning the story ran, the stock dropped 10 points. Of course, Malcolm got into all sorts of trouble for his mistake.  But as he was thinking through his story and where he went wrong, he had an epiphany. He realized that he had made up the story–even though unintentionally–AND he moved the stock market.  

Malcolm eventually moved from the business desk to the health and science desk. One of the first stories he did there was a story about an AIDS conference. Three cities were being considered to host the next conference: Rome, Vancouver, and Amsterdam. It was a big deal for a reporter, because you got to go to one of these cities, and it was a week’s paid vacation. 

Malcolm had already been to all three of those cities and he wanted to go somewhere new. So, as he was writing up the story, he wrote that NIH officials were considering Rome, Vancouver, Amsterdam, and Sydney, Australia (though Sydney was not originally under consideration). Sure enough, his addition was picked up and the conference was held in Sydney.  In all this, Malcolm says he had a sense of real power for the first time.

Right around that time, a new reporter, Billy Booth, joined the newspaper. Malcolm and Billy had a contest to see who could get certain articles printed in the paper. They would find obscure topics on different diseases, bolden them up, and watch as the articles moved from page 15 to page 2 in the paper. Drunk on power, they came up with a contest–to see who could get the phrase, “raises new and troubling questions” in American journalism. The person who got it printed the most in one month won. 

Discussion Questions

  • Where does authority come from? Is it given? Earned? Presumed?  How does authority get exploited?  
  • Through their game these two journalists gave themselves authority and power they hadn’t planned on having. Have you ever experienced authority or power that you were not planning on? 
  • What is healthy authority and what is unhealthy authority? How is authority used well and how is it abused?
  • Is there a difference between power and authority?  Can you have one without the other?

Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32

Philippians 2:1-13

Matthew 21:23-32

(Text links are to Oremus Bible Browser. Oremus Bible Browser is not affiliated with or supported by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. You can find the calendar of readings for Year A at Lectionary Readings.)

For lectionary humor and insight, check the weekly comic Agnus Day.

Gospel Reflection

Authority is an interesting concept. Often, when we think of authority, our brains immediately go to politics, workplace authority, or people in positions of power. It can bring us to a place of argument or anger, of debate and struggle. Who is right? Who is wrong? We instinctively embrace a category or strong belief system. 

Jesus wanted disciples who were both committed and thoughtful.  He asked questions and pushed people to think deeply about who they were and why they believed and acted as they did.  Jesus wanted to help them avoid arbitrarily falling into one camp or another. He even said, “What do you think?” 

What do you think about authority?  What gives someone authority?  To whom do you grant authority?

Authority exists in helpful and deeply meaningful ways that go beyond politics, beyond opinion, and beyond culture.   It gives us the courage to act when we feel confused.  Taking the authority of Christ seriously brings us back to being Jesus for one another. It brings us back to authentic care within the body of Christ. 

Two years ago my husband (also a pastor) died in a mountain climbing accident. I will forever remember my Bishop, a person in authority, looking me in the eye as she held my head with a face of streaming tears, and said, “He fell into Jesus.” That gracious, powerful exercise of her authority, that pastoral care moment, is nestled deep in my heart and brain. She had talked with others in authority, Search and Rescue, who knew their craft just as she knew her craft. These authority areas came together for good, to care for people, and to use their giftedness in a time of deep trouble. We often consider authority to be negative, but authority can also be positive. 

Finally, Christians look to Jesus Christ as their ultimate authority, as the guide when the way is unclear.  We look to Christ to give our actions direction and justification.  We hear him say, “What do you think?” and with our eyes on him we can dare to step into the messiness of gray choices. 

Discussion Questions

  • What were the feelings in your body when you first read the text? What emotion or reaction rose to the surface?
  • What biases do you think you hold when it comes to the concept of authority?
  • As you think about good and healthy authority, how does that impact how you read Jesus’ words and insights?
  • How does grace-filled, Christ-centered authority show up in your life?
  • Share a story or experience about helpful authority.

Activity Suggestions

  • Using finger paints, place blobs of different colors on the paper. For a minute keep the colors separate as you start to finger paint. Perhaps, assign a topic or issue to each color (e.g. a color for the authority of a teacher, a color for the authority of a parent, a color for the authority in a friend group, etc). Talk about an issue, and as the authorities overlap mix the colors. This creates a visual of how authority and opinion overlap and can look messy – and beautiful –  all at the same time. 
  • This activity could also be done using the scripture text. Use different colors for Jesus, the chief priests, and the crowd and retell the story as you paint. 

Closing Prayer

Holy God, in the midst of discord and distrust we experience the abuse of power and authority. We pray for leaders and people in positions of power, in households, schools, hospitals, corporations, and government.  We pray that compassionate authority will reign. Fill the world with forgiveness, open minds, and open hearts. We pray with gratitude for the places and spaces offering healthy authority. We pray for the places and spaces of unhealthy authority and abuse, that justice will reign. Thank you for Christ’s authority that comes to us in confession and absolution in the midst of our sin. In Jesus’ name, Amen.