There’s a story I like that comes from way back in the days when our devices were just beginning to talk to us. Ancient history, right? A man bought a new car with an early version of a voice-warning system. At first, he enjoyed the novelty of it all. He was amused to hear the soft female voice gently reminding him that his seat belt wasn’t fastened or that a door wasn’t closed all the way. Toward the end of his first full tank of gas, he discovered the voice was also programmed to warn him about running empty. “Your fuel level is low” she said, in her sweet voice.
The man nodded his head and thanked her. But he figured he still had enough in the tank to go another 50 miles or so, and he kept on driving. A few minutes later, the voice interrupted again with the same warning, and so it went, over and over. Although he knew it was the same recording, in his mind the voice began to sound a bit more harsh and demanding every time it came on. Finally, he’d had enough. He stopped his car and crawled up under the dashboard. After a quick search, he found the right wires and gave them a good yank. So much for the voice. He was still feeling smug a few miles later, when he ran out of gas. He pulled off to the side of the road while the engine sputtered and died. Somewhere up under the dashboard, he was sure he could hear that sweet feminine voice laughing at him.
This is one of those stories where, if you thought about it for half a second, you probably saw the punch line coming. But it’s a fitting story for our time. These days, it seems there are little voices of authority everywhere we turn. How many times have you heard “Please stay on the line, your call is important to us.”? I don’t know about you, but I never really feel my call is all that important just because some robot says so, especially when it keeps you on hold for an hour or more.
Pam and I just got back from a trip to Florida. Airports are a great place to go if you like being told what to do by disembodied voices. “Please have your boarding pass and identification ready to present to the security personnel.” “Do not leave your bags unattended.” “Smoking is not permitted anywhere on this flight, or for that matter, anywhere else in the United States.” Not that I’m a fan of smoking you understand. But sometimes don’t you just wish you could crawl up under the dashboard and rip out the wires? And it’s bad enough in public. Now that many of us are outfitting our homes with Echo Dots and Home Pods, these little voices of authority are fast taking over our private lives as well. I know we think Siri, Alexa and Google Assistant are there to help us, but I can’t help feeling they are secretly plotting against us. This is my own favorite conspiracy theory.
Life was certainly less technologically complicated in Jesus’ day. But that’s not to say that he never had issues with authority. The Scribes and Pharisees were Jesus’ main antagonists. In the four gospels, there are about a hundred and twenty verses that refer to Scribes or Pharisees or both. Often, when they appear, we find them plotting against Jesus, trying to trap him into doing or saying something for which they could arrest him. In fairness, Jesus was pretty confrontational. He called them hypocrites, fools, blind guides, a brood of vipers and whitewashed tombs. He said that they were forever laying a heavy burden of law on other people, but they didn’t always practice what they preached.
For the record, many modern scholars believe that this picture of the Scribes and Pharisees from the New Testament is actually a distortion of who they were in fact. The early church was invested in showing these people in a negative light, and that comes through loud and clear in the gospels. Other documents that we have give us reason to believe the Scribes and Pharisees were mostly committed to their understanding of what it meant to be faithful, and not the legalistic, deceitful and evil people the gospels make them out to be.
Still, these encounters between Jesus and the authorities account for much of the dramatic tension of the gospels. Jesus was continually challenging the authorities. He broke the Sabbath; he threw over the tables of the moneychangers in the Temple; he reinterpreted the scriptures, and, worst of all, in the minds of some at least, he made himself out to be the Son of God. Jesus was, as I’ve said, very much a radical by the standards of his time. But I want you to notice something here. At no point do we find Jesus challenging authority simply for the sake of pulling it all down around his ears.
This morning’s passage, all by itself, should be enough to lay that idea to rest. Today’s passage, in the New Revised Standard Version, says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” In this case, I like the Common English Bible version better because it conveys a clearer sense of Jesus’ passion. “Don’t even begin to think that I have come to do away with the Law and the Prophets.” Clearly, Jesus wanted people to understand that this was really important.
Now, “the law and the prophets” was a shorthand way of talking about what we call the Old Testament. In the Jewish tradition, the scriptures are divided up into three parts: Torah, Nebiim, and Kethubim, or in English, the Law, the Prophets and the Writings. When Jesus spoke of fulfilling the law and the prophets, he was referring to the authority of the bible; the commandments of God captured in the scriptures.
But, when Jesus speaks these words, as part of his Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, there was a striking paradox in what he said that would have been obvious to those who were actually there listening, but that we can easily miss. The Scribes and the Pharisees, who were there among the crowd, were the keepers of the law. The Pharisees, particularly, prided themselves on strict obedience to the law. They believed that was the way to make themselves right with God. Meticulously following the law, to them, was the same thing as obeying God’s will.
Everyone Jesus was talking to would have known this. So, when he told them their righteousness had to be greater than the Scribes and Pharisees, they would all have immediately have thought, well that’s just ridiculous or impossible. But Jesus goes on to say he had come to fulfill the law, and the obvious implication was that the Scribes and the Pharisees were not fulfilling the law. As faithful as they may have thought they were being, their strict legalism was missing something. They obeyed the letter of the law; every jot and tittle as the old King James Bible used to say. But they failed to understand the law’s Spirit. Fulfilling the law was not about being even more strict, compulsive and unyielding. It was about subjecting the authority of the law to an even higher authority; the law of love; what Jesus later called the first and second greatest commandments –– love God, and love our neighbors, even as we love ourselves. This we Jesus’ idea of the highest authority; the commandments of God, tempered with love.
Authority is often a touchy subject for us. Most of us really don’t like being told what to do, even when it may be in our own best interests. I remember driving along with my father-in-law one time. We passed a car that had one of those old “Question Authority,” bumper stickers on it. Jim turned to me and said, “I preached a sermon about that once. I said I wanted to make up another bumper sticker that read, ‘Obey Authority!’” He didn’t remember, but I was actually there when he preached that sermon. His message was that too much “Question Authority” leads to anarchy, and I certainly agree. But on the other hand, too much “Obey Authority” leads to tyranny, and I’m sure he would have agreed with that in turn. As in most things, when it comes to authority, what we’re looking for is a balance.
This has become a real problem for us today because balance is something we seem to have lost. A lot of the old, traditional authority structures are under siege or have broken down altogether. As you know, when I’m researching a sermon like this, I often like to get clear about definitions. Authority, according to Webster, is “the power or right to enforce obedience.” But the subject turns out to be a lot more complicated than that. Think about the people and things that exercise authority over our lives. There are lots of “authority figures” around; people like police, politicians, parents, teachers, bosses, doctors, lawyers, talk show hosts and even, on a rare occasion, ministers. But authority doesn’t really come from these people. These are people who have a responsibility for carrying out the authority they have been given, or that they have taken upon themselves. I find it helpful to distinguish between “authorities,” which are people in positions of power, and “authority,” which is the law they are supposed to uphold.
But just as there are all kinds of people with power, there are all kinds of laws. We have laws of nature, laws of science, laws of reason, laws of God, which vary from religion to religion. And then there is a whole collection of other things that aren’t necessarily laws, but still exercise a great deal of authority over us: social conventions, family traditions, fashion and peer pressure. And add to that the authority of our assumptions, moods, habits and prejudice. I read an article just this morning by a woman who allowed her whole life to become completely wrapped up in the authority of online multiple-choice quizzes. Authority comes in all shapes and sizes.
And it’s not bad enough that we have all these sources of authority making demands on us, we also have to keep up with the changes they keep making. People used to believe that fat makes you fat, but now we’re all supposed to eat bacon with every meal, unless of course you’re a Vegan, in which case, the laws of Veganism supersede the laws of Dr. Atkins. We used to believe that pot was a gateway drug to heroin addiction, but now it’s fast becoming the solution to all our medical and economic problems. We used to believe that immigrants made our country strong and diverse, but now we’re all supposed to treat them with fear and suspicion. Authority is a cacophony of competing and changing rules and regulations. Makes it a little hard to know where to stand, doesn’t it. And the problem runs even deeper when we discover that many of those in positions of authority don’t deserve our trust.
Authority is a very complicated subject. But there are a couple of things we can say about it that can really help bring it into focus. First of all, this business of trust is critical. All of our scouts here today know this. It’s in the first line of the scout law that I learned as a Tenderfoot, way back in the dark ages. “A scout is trustworthy.” But we have really lost a lot of trust these days, and that is largely because far too many people in positions of authority have stopped caring about whether or not they are trustworthy. Being trustworthy has begun to seem like a liability. It’s become less important than winning, gaining power, staying in power, feathering your own nest and forcing your own ideology, whatever it may be, down everyone else’s throats.
To be worthy of trust, we must be committed to telling the truth, and living the truth. We must be honorable and courageous, willing to compromise for the sake of what is good and virtuous and healthy, for the sake of what we used to call the “greater good.” And if that means sometimes we lose, losing is better than being dishonorable. Sometimes you’ll hear people say, “Show me a good loser and I will show you a loser.” But my faith comes from the cross and the crucifixion. And so I say, “Show me a good loser, and I will show you Christ, who allowed himself to be crucified for the sake of love.” Whatever positions of authority we find ourselves in, our first rule of thumb should be this: Be worthy of the trust you’ve been given. That’s the first point.
Second, that old “Question Authority” bumper sticker still carries a lot of wisdom, especially when the authority in question is our false assumptions, things we know absolutely to be true, except that they’re not. For centuries people believed that Aristotle was right when he said that a heavier object would necessarily fall to earth faster than a lighter object. Aristotle was regarded as the greatest thinker of all time, and surely, he couldn’t be wrong. It was a matter of common sense.
Of course, anyone could have taken two objects and dropped them from a great height to see if the heavier object landed first. But no one did until nearly 2,000 years after Aristotle died. In 1589 Galileo called together a group of learned professors at the base of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. He went to the top and dropped both a ten- pound and a one-pound weight. Both landed at precisely the same instant. But, the power of their belief was so strong, that the professors denied the evidence of their own eyes. They went right on saying Aristotle was right.
This is an important point these days. We have been making some very big and very questionable assumptions lately; about the climate, about health-care, about guns, about who does and who does not deserve to be called an American. And regardless of where you come down on these issues, the opinions of all of us are far too driven these days by the likes of CNN, MSNBC and Fox News. We need to have the courage to call our most cherished assumptions into question. Otherwise, we’ll just go right on saying Aristotle was right, without ever actually knowing the truth.
And finally, the point Jesus was making was not just for the Scribes and Pharisees. To the best of our ability and understanding, we should be faithful about taking the law of God seriously. Thou shalt not kill or steal or take the Name of God in vain. As he put it, “Neither the smallest letter nor even the smallest stroke of a pen will be erased from the Law until everything there becomes a reality.” Jesus may have been exaggerating a bit for the sake of effect, but he certainly wanted everyone to know he was not simply casting God’s law aside. But he also knew that the robotic obedience to the law isn’t enough all by itself. We cannot be faithful only to the letter of the law. The law, whatever law we may be talking about, must be fulfilled by the law of love. Rules and regulations must always be tempered with compassion.
Authority is a very complicated subject. It’s hard to know what’s right and wrong amid all the voices that are competing for our attention and loyalty. But, I believe, if we start by choosing to be as trustworthy as possible, if we are willing to call our most cherished assumptions into question, and if do all that we do with love and compassion, we will never stray very far from God’s Spirit.