When I was the Associate Rector down at All Saints’, Carmel, one of my tasks was to be the person responsible for giving monetary assistance to the poor. The parish was known throughout the Monterey area as a place of last resort when the rent was late or the power was about to be shut off, or the luck had run out and you needed bus fare back to L.A. And the people of All Saints’ generously supported this ministry, so if I didn’t give very much to any one person, I could help quite a few of them.
One of the things that my clients would often do after I’d handed them a check and we were saying good-bye, was to ask when our services were on Sunday morning. I would give them the information and tell them that they’d be welcome any time but I knew they’d never come. I think that they knew it, too, so why did they ask? I guess it was because they wanted me to think well of them. They wanted me to know that they understood they bore some responsibility for the situation they were in. Their asking about church services was their way of telling me that they knew that they needed more than money to turn their lives around.
But, of course, it’s one thing to say this, and another to act on it. Of course I would have been glad to see them on a Sunday morning, but they didn’t need to prove anything to me. Maybe they were good people who were doing their best and had just been dealt a bad hand, and maybe their stories were a little more complicated than that. But that was not for me to judge. They needed help and All Saints’ Church could give them some, and I was satisfied with that. Whether they turned over a new leaf, and how religion figured into it, was really up to them.
Sometimes when people ask us a question they’re really trying to tell us something. When the Chief Priests and Elders come up to Jesus and ask him by what authority he is teaching and healing in the Temple, they’re really telling him that the authority to do such things belongs to them. It is their temple, and they’ll decide whether he belongs there. Now Jesus can hear what they’re really saying, so he asks them a question, “Sure--I’ll tell you about my authority, but first you have to tell me how you decide who’s worthy and who’s not. For example, what would you say about my friend John the Baptist?”
Their dithering in response reveals that the only authority these leaders understand is a superficial one. They are in power because people honor and defer to them. But we shouldn’t mistake this for some kind of rapport with the masses. They’ll pander to the people when it serves their own interests, but they don’t care about their deep needs. They aren’t really concerned about their dignity, their freedom, and their hope. And when a leader comes along who does have that concern, who understands that the people’s real, underlying problems are spiritual, and that any change that’s going to do any lasting good has to be a change of heart—when that kind of authority comes along, the Chief Priests and the elders oppose it. That’s what they did to John the Baptist and that’s what they’re doing to Jesus.
This story shows us the difference between two kinds of authority. One kind works from the top down, trying to get people to choose their side in a struggle against other people. The other kind works from the inside out, encouraging people to take free action, for the sake of what they know in their hearts to be true. One kind seeks first and foremost to get and keep power. The other is most concerned to know and to do the will of God. In his dialogue with the leaders in the temple, Jesus is trying to get the Chief Priests and the Elders to own that the authority that they care about is the first kind, the top down, get and keep power kind. Until they do, he and they really have nothing to talk about, because they are speaking two different languages.
There is a story, maybe apocryphal, about Lenin, the founder of Soviet Communism, that on his deathbed he said, “I made a mistake. Without doubt, an oppressed multitude had to be liberated. But our method only provoked further oppression and atrocious massacres. My living nightmare is to find myself lost in an ocean of red with the blood of innumerable victims. It is too late now to alter the past, but what was needed to save Russia were ten Francis of Assisis.”
I love this story, whether it’s true or not, because of the idea that the ruthless, materialist revolutionary might look back at his mistakes and recognize that the world can only truly change from the inside out. We’ll hear a lot more about Francis of Assisi next week, but let me just say that he and Lenin had a lot in common. They were both brilliant public speakers and charismatic leaders. They both cared passionately for the poor. They both had a vision of universal human solidarity, transcending ethnic and national and cultural boundaries. But what Francis had that Lenin did not, unless he got it at the last hour, was a heart to do the will of God. Lenin organized the poor to serve in his army, to join his party, to follow his directives so he could liberate them. Francis gave away his worldly goods and went to live among the poor, caring for them with his own hands, so that through him, they might experience the liberating compassion of God.
In Matthew 3:14, John the Baptist tries to beg off of baptizing Jesus, saying “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus is adamant and so the one who is without sin receives the baptism of repentance, just as he will later receive the punishment of a criminal. When he does this he is doing what the chief priests and elders of the people will not do; he is renouncing any distinction between himself and the harlots and tax collectors who also came to be baptized. Jesus begins and ends his public career with acts of humility because his authority does not depend on whether people approve of him, but it is the authority that comes from within, from doing God’s will. This is the way that he showed his disciples to live, and the great saints are those, like St. Francis, who understood that it is not enough to pay lip-service to this way. True freedom, true happiness, true purpose and authority come from putting it into practice.
There is a temptation for us to put this way of life up on a pedestal and say that it’s all very well for them, but I’m just an ordinary, sinful, person. But that would be to reject Christ’s most precious gift, the gift of his own humility. He became like us in every way so that we could know that God goes to work through ordinary people like us, if we are willing to work with God. Christ’s revolution of love, the real transformation of the world, happens from the inside out, so it really doesn’t depend on external circumstances. It is grounded in God’s compassion and gracious favor towards all creation, so it can’t be thwarted by human failings or human judgment.
But it does depend on our decision, a decision we have to make for ourselves, a decision we have to make every day, which is the decision to give God the authority in our lives. It means getting up every morning and deciding to be about God’s business that day, to do God’s work, whatever our mood, whatever our circumstances, whether we feel like it or not. We may not even know what God’s will for us is that day, but if we are ready and willing to do it, we’ll find out. We may not know if we’re the right ones for the job, or if what we’re doing is really having an effect, but if it is God’s will, and we are willing, God is able to use what we give to get it done.