Monday, June 2, 2008

Act with Authority

Jesus said, "Not everyone who says to me, `Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, `Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?' Then I will declare to them, `I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.'
"Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell-- and great was its fall!"
Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.
Matthew 7:21-29

What is this authority that people sense in our Lord’s teaching? We’re told it’s unlike what we get from our scribes. I’m assuming that scribes are teachers who have an investment to protect, and whose allegiance therefore is not to God or to the people, but to the institution upon which their livelihood depends. They are retainers, hired hands who do not care, role-players who are not invested in what they teach or in whom they teach.

So let’s venture the obvious answer, that Jesus’s authority is his honest care for the truth, for God, and for the people. He shows this care in the very illustration he uses today: a wise man who builds his house upon rock, and a foolish man who builds his house on sand.

He makes it easy for his hearers to care along with him, to care for the truth and for God and for themselves: Who among us does not care for the house in which he or she lives? As we hear over and again in this cloudy season in the housing market, one’s home is often one’s primary asset. More personally, it is also a sanctuary of renewal for repeated return to the world and its demands.

He uses a similar image at another famous moment in his teaching, when he reaches for language to speak of eternal life: “In my father’s house are many dwelling places… I go to prepare a place for you, that where I am there you may be also.”

You recall that he introduces that promise with the invitation, “Believe in God, believe also in me.”

On the basis of his teaching today, we might hear him adding to his invitation “Believe in God, believe in me” a third bidding, “Believe in your own power to choose, to trust, and to act.”

More specifically, he says “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man…” What words of his does he mean?

That’s the biblical call to examine the context. Too often, we settle for hearing snippets of the Bible taken out of context. If more scripture were read within its context, fewer theological and ecclesiastical houses would be built upon sand, more upon rock.

So backspace from chapter 7:21-29 in Matthew’s Gospel and you have in chapters 5, 6, and early 7 the Sermon on the Mount, the quintessential message of Jesus. Among the words of Jesus we’re invited to act on are these:

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

“When you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.”

“If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.”

“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good…”

What is this authority that Jesus shows in his teaching? Heaven knows, it isn’t the authority of logic or of custom. It is that he cares about each of us and all of us, pushing “us” to embrace all the globe, and by that love invites us to care for self and neighbor and community as one cares for his or her own home. This house he wants us to build on rock, our own house that he cares to help us get in order, is the network of trust that constantly builds and repairs relationship, the knowing and loving that Jesus finds missing when we pour our effort into pious public show—“Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?”—but do not care to know and love and trust, do not take the risk of acting today as if we belong to the kingdom of heaven and have the authority of Jesus, for we do.