Who Holds Authority?

Who Holds Authority?

June 2, 2013
Stina Pope


Two powerful stories, stories about authority.

In our first story, Elijah, the prophet, has been a thorn in the king’s side, and is outright hated by the queen. ahab jezebelThat would be Queen Jezebel. She seems to have had more power than her husband, she makes things happen. Not good things, mind you, but she does get things moving. And she is a follower of Baal. Baal was the god of the peoples around Israel, and there was constant friction because of this.

At one point, Elijah got Jezebel so riled up that she simply had all of the prophets of Yahweh killed. The only reason Elijah was still alive was that he got out to the desert before they caught up with him. Usually, if someone went out to the desert alone, on foot, and without resources, they didn’t last long. That is exactly what happened with Elijah – he was out in the desert because he ran – by himself, without anything except his God, Yahweh.

And Yahweh takes care of him. There is a raven that brings him food. elijahsravenHe finds shelter for safe sleeping. Eventually he is told to go stay with a widow in the nearby country, but we will get to that later.

In our story today King Ahab has assembled all of the prophets of Baal, and Elijah comes back, it sounds like he kind of pops up suddenly, and he challenges the prophets of Baal to a duel. The stakes are really the mind of the people. It is simple. He is only one, the prophets of Baal are many, 450 or so. When the duel starts, the people are inclined to go with the prophets of Baal, after all, who wants to get killed by the Queen’s men? If he loses, they will kill him, and that will be the end of it.

Because the prophets of Baal are so many, Elijah says, they can go first. He suggests that they take two bulls – it is important to remember that the bull was the symbol for Baal – cut them in the appropriate manner, lay them on the altar, but ask God to furnish the fire. The prophets of Baal chose their bull, cut it in pieces, and then called upon Baal – and there was no response. They try again, they do all the right things, and still, no response. At this point, Elijah gets very sarcastic, and suggests that Baal may be asleep, and worse.

Then it is Elijah’s turn. He has to rebuild the altar to Yahweh, which had been torn down. Then he digs a trench around the altar, which is an unusual thing. Then he puts the wood on the altar, cuts up the bull and puts it on top, and then, just to add insult to injury, tells them to pour water on the altar and everything, three times, enough to fill up the trench. Now it is clear why there is a trench, to be able to measure the amount of water. He prays to Yahweh, and fire comes down from heaven, and look at what it does. This fire not only consumes the bull, and the wood, it consumes the very stones of the altar and the dust, as well as the water surrounding the altar.

The people get the message. Yahweh has the authority and power, Baal does not. It is not too long after this that both Ahab and Jezebel are killed.

So fast forward to the story in the Gospel (Luke 7:1-10). Here we have the centurion, the Jewish elders, and Jesus. The centurion is at least a “God-fearer.” He may have been a proselyte, but it is not clear about that. There are several God-fearers mentioned in the Gospels. These God-fearers were Gentiles, non-Jews, who believed in God, and not just God, but clearly, the Jewish God. Probably, in the centurion’s case, if he had gotten circumcised and “joined” Judaism, he would have lost his job. Whereas, if he stayed being a God-fearer, he could still worship God, although not go into the inner court of the Temple, he could help his friends, it was a political decision. However, he was still a Gentile, and therefore not “clean” religiously, therefore not someone that could welcome a rabbi into his house. But it goes deeper than that. He really “gets” the issue of authority.

The centurion had a slave who was very sick, and he had heard about Jesus, and asked the Jewish elders if it was possible for Jesus to come heal him. The elders understand the issue. Jesus is a rabbi, the centurion is a Gentile. But, Jesus has been doing some interesting things, perhaps it is worth asking. So they go and ask Jesus if he will come, this is not the ordinary God-fearing Gentile, they insist. He built our synagogue for us! So Jesus goes. Then the centurion sends his friends, telling Jesus that there does not need to be any conflict about Jesus entering a Gentile house. Why? Because the centurion understands the issue of authority. He is a man of authority. He tells this one to come, and he comes, and that one to do this, and he does it. Therefore, he understands that Jesus has only to say the word. It will be enough.

Jesus is stunned. The centurion’s grasp of authority is amazing, and right on the mark. He tells the crowd that the centurion gets an A+ for faith, believing that all Jesus had to do was to speak the word, and things would happen. And they did.

What message do these stories hold for us?

In this time when we have many gods that demand our attention, gods of wealth and greed, the God of Love calls to us and says, ummm, who really has the authority here? Who has the power? Are you happy bowing down to those gods? Do they give you joy in the middle of the night?

It is a very difficult thing for us to step out of our everyday lives far enough to be able to really look at what we are doing and why, and to think, maybe it does not need to be that way! Maybe there is another way – but it is almost too much for us to consider. But maybe, maybe, there is another way to live, another way to relate to each other.

OK, so I love architecture. I like to look at the undersides of buildings, to see how things are put together, and when they are put together in an interesting fashion, it pleases me. There is a new movement out called “the tiny house.” This comes out of the idea that bigger is not better, and that we can live well in smaller spaces. This is nothing new in Japan, of course, but here it is a different story! One of the things I like to look at is the videos of tiny house building on youtube.

The one place where tiny house building is well established here is in the RV world, of course. Our RV is a model of this, it folds in on itself like some nice origami to travel, and then opens up again when you get where you’re going – and, it does that folding and unfolding easily – also important! But on youtube, what they are showing is how people have transformed places that are permanent living spaces, not vacation spaces. It is, in a way, throwing out the old god that says bigger is better, and replacing it with one that talks about economy of scale, about using less and enjoying more, this god talks about needing less things and paying more attention to relationships. It takes the authority away from that old god that says we must make lots of money to be happy, because we need lots of money to pay for the things that make us happy – only they don’t.

I’m not against making money, and at the same time, it is clear to me that we have allowed money to become the driver of our economy, we have allowed money to dictate what is important, and what is not. This is very far from the way of Jesus. If we follow the way of Jesus, we may find ourselves like Elijah, being an irritating and sometimes lonely voice, and being able to bring down fire when it is really important.

What is it that holds authority for you?

When we think about Jesus, do we think, all he has to do is say the word! If we follow his way, what is our word like? Do we remember that when we speak in his name, we also only have to say the word? How is that for frightening? And yet, if we let go of that idea, the alternative is hopelessness and helplessness. The truth is that we have been promised that we worship a God of love, and a God of power, a God who loves us and who has ultimate authority. We have been shown the way to God, it is the way of Jesus. It is not the road that most of the world is interested in, and that is OK. As you go through your week, perhaps you will think about what is really important in your life, and what is just nice. Perhaps you will decide to change some things, or not. There is no one answer that is right for everyone, except that it should all lead to love.