s059g99 Somerton Park 26/9/99 Sunday 26 a
"By what authority ...?" Matthew 21.23
Some time ago I was very grateful to be given a book voucher, and after a long search, I eventually bought Michael Cathcart's abridgement of Manning Clark's "History of Australia", which has been interesting reading indeed. I am "up to" the first world war, and on p 536, an incident is related thus: "In March 1917, on the eve of the Bullecourt bloodbath, a British staff captain ticked off an Australian soldier for not saluting. The Australian patted him on the shoulder and said, "Young man, when you go home, tell your mother that today you've seen a real bloody soldier"". The author comments that Australians "were egalitarians, dinki-di democrats, not grovellers."
Here we see a classic confrontation of two forms of authority; the authority of heritage and tradition, and the authority of the experience of real life. Sadly however both exerted their authority to put down the other. And this is not just past history. I have no doubt Jung would have a "field day" with me. I was pleased our boys had an opportunity to have their education at the local state secondary school, rather than a church or private college where "privilege" can be a factor.
But I think that the incident also points us to how we as the Church operate. Are we seen as dignifying "grovelling", an attitude quite repugnant to the Australian psyche. And if we do, are we being seen to accurately reflect what Jesus wants to be reflected? I personally don't think Jesus wanted us to grovel at all; he seemed always to be helping people to their feet. I think we need to be noted for this.
I would venture to suggest that we in the Anglican Church have to be particularly careful how closely we associate ourselves with the pomp and ceremony of the British upper-classes - which may well alienate large sections of our population who actually do not aspire to such things at all. And I wonder again at the world - wide grief at the death of Princess Diana. I don't want to put down the value of heritage and tradition, but Diana was perceived as a person for the people. She was an ordinary person whose marriage had failed, and ordinary people could relate to her.
In the gospel story we have a clash of authorities, or at least an attempted clash. The established authority of lay and ordained in the religious hierarchy verses the authority perhaps these leaders assumed Jesus would invoke - the biblical authority of the solitary prophet - like Elijah. But Jesus does not answer the question, or invoke an external authority. For to do so would be to end up in an argument on which authority is "true" or "right" - and the end result of that would inevitably be that one or other would be put down in the process.
Some time ago we had "National Poetry Day" <in Australia>, and as I was driving that day, a poet was being interviewed on ABC FM. He quoted Alexander Pope who said words to the effect that: "Poets say nicely things everyone knows". I am sorry that I am unable to credit the poet being interviewed, but one can do only so many things while driving. However my ears pricked up at this remark, for I suppose all art is the same. The "authority" of artwork comes as it illuminates truth in our lives - as it "rings true" for us as individuals.
However not all art is comfortable. Some art does confront us as we realise truths we have held in the subconscious. But even if uncomfortable, it is uncomfortable, precisely because it impinges on our perception of our existence.
The authority of art comes not just in the layout of the brush strokes, but as it conveys some truth of human existence. The authority of a piece of music, is not in the melody the notes form, but as that melody touches our souls. That which we already "know" is expressed, clarified, subtly (or perhaps radically) being incorporated into our world view.
It is a quite different experience to attend a concert and to listen to a CD of the same music. In the "live" performance we are privy to the effort and co-ordination of all of the performers, of which we are oblivious when listening to the recording. We don't rise in our chairs, clap furiously and call for an encore after we have listened to a recording of Handel's Messiah; we just press the replay button on the remote :-)
Indeed, I would think that no artist is interested in technical perfection, but that an artwork faithfully reflects some truth in their own lives and / or that it impinges on others' lives.
Jesus does not answer the question about authority that the chief priests and the elders of the people ask. Instead he tells a parable about the two sons - the one who first says he won't do as he is asked, but changes his mind and does so - and the second who firstly says he will do as he is asked but changes his mind and doesn't. He invites his questioners to answer - and the answer is quite straight-forward. He doesn't engage in debate, he doesn't put down his "opponents", he invites them to allow his words to impinge on their existence.
Jesus' words have only as much authority as we invest in them, as they "ring true" for our lives.
Of course the "problem" with Jesus, is that his words did impinge on the existences of people, especially on those in "authority". They knew, only too clearly, that if Jesus was "kosher" the positions of authority they had assumed over others were not "kosher". Hence the importance of the nature of Jesus' authority to them. However Jesus wasn't interested in exerting his authority "over them" as they had assumed. It wasn't a contest for Jesus, though it was deadly serious for them.
Jesus didn't see himself as a "problem". He saw his words as "spirit and life" (John 6:63) - and spirit and life for all who would allow them to impinge on their existence. The spirit and life of the "authorities" they had manufactured for themselves was a dominion over others. The spirit and life that Jesus offers is an interdependence one with another. By placing themselves above others, the religious authorities effectively disallowed any possible contribution to their existence from others. And that is very sad.
Indeed the words of Jesus about John the Baptist reflect this same sentiment that it is not the artist or the technical expertise of the artwork, but the effect which the artist looks for. Jesus says: "John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him ..." (21.32) Jesus saw in John the Baptist the same as himself, a person of God hoping that some of the righteousness of God might impinge on others.
And in some ways the beauty of art - painting, music or whatever, is that while it may confront and disturb, one can walk away, one can give oneself time to appropriate the message. Verbal stouching demands wit, clarity of purpose, immediacy and tenacity. It is also so bound up with the personality of the combatants, whereas the artist gets the message across without even being physically present.
We all have a contribution to make to others, and others to us, whoever we are, whatever joys or sorrows life has dealt us. As we value the other's contribution they may indeed be emboldened to share more of the real concerns they have, rather than just talking about the weather.
During the week I saw an SBS program on rape and the experiments in castration for paedaphiles and rapists. One of the distressing parts of the program was the aspect of the violence associated with such crimes. I reflected that, without condoning it in the least, perhaps the violence is an outpouring to another the extent of the violence wrought on them and the sense of powerlessness and degradation to which they have been subjected and with which they have lived.
For we should be clear what Jesus aim and purpose ever was - and from St Paul's words in Philippians, he was not concerned to establish or exert his own authority. He existed for others. And we are bidden to do likewise.
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