Authority vs. Power

“Jesus entered the temple and the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, `From heaven,’ he will say to us, `Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, `Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.'”  Matthew 21.23-27

What is the difference between authority and power?

Monty Python has something to say about it here

And here’s an excerpt from my take on what Jesus has to say about it in last Sunday’s Gospel reading:

By turning the question back on the church leaders, Jesus exposes their fear, and fear is a byproduct, not of authority, but of power.  See, power is an external dynamic (the Greek word that is translated as “power” is dunamis), and because it is external, those in power always fear that others will try and take that power away from them. So to counteract their own fear, the powerful create or perpetuate fear in those whom they have power over to keep them in their rightful place. And so the response to power is either submission or coercion.

Authority, on the other hand, is a more internal, organic thing.  In Greek, it’s a compound word, “exousia.”  Ex- coming out from, and Ousia – one’s substance.    And the response to authority, as Jesus’ parable of the father and two sons illustrates, is not submission or coercion, but obedience.  He concludes the lesson with a provocative claim about tax-collectors and prostitutes. Jesus sees the Kingdom of God being made real in the lives of the very people who appear to be disobeying God, the people whom the religiously powerful have said are beyond hope, beyond grace, beyond favor, beyond redemption, beyond love, mercy, and compassion, beyond their boundaries. Men who have betrayed their own people in order to collect taxes for the Roman State.  Women who have sold their bodies to whomever has enough coin.  These are the ones who are changing their minds and being obedient to the exousia pouring out from who Jesus is…these are the ones who are revealing the Kingdom of God in their lives and in the lives of others.

Then there are the chief priests and elders: men who are living the epitome of the religious life and who model their life around the Scriptures for the sake of others.  These are the ones who, because of their unwillingness to see that they too need to change their lives, end up revealing nothing but their self-protecting concern for the way they’ve always done things, for their rites, rituals, and for the maintaining of the status quo.  These are the ones who say the right things and follow the law, but have lost the plot, and are missing the life that God offers.

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