Problems with Authority
by Rev. Jack Peterson
Reprinted with permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"
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Written to explain that
Christ came to save everyone.
In the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David, and the virgin's name was Mary. And coming to her, he said, "Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you." But she was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. Then the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end." But Mary said to the angel, "How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?" And the angel said to her in reply, "The holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God. And behold, Elizabeth, your relative, has also conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren; for nothing will be impossible for God." Mary said, "Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word." Then the angel departed from her.
There is pride mixed with cowardice in the saying, "It is better to beg for forgiveness than to ask for permission." Fearful of rejection, but unwilling to allow a legitimate authority to evaluate the merits of a plan, the person acting on the premise is eager to launch a personal agenda, but quickly retreats in the face of authoritative resistance or objection. We often observe that such a person has a "problem with authority."
And underlying that problem with authority may simply be selfishness or laziness. A pathologically selfish person does not have the patience to be told what to do and quickly reacts with anger or cold non-responsiveness. He is too occupied with his own pursuits to be bothered with the requirements of serving the common good under the authoritative care of parents or employers or rulers. Sometimes sloth, like the sloth of the son in the parable who promised his father to work in the vineyard but did not, demonstrates a true disrespect for authority. This is why employers everywhere cherish the relatively rare employee who consistently carries through with his promise of work.
At times, however, the problem really lies with those in authority who misuse or overreach the bounds of their authority. Rulers like Pontius Pilate fail to grasp that their authority "came from above." (Jn 19:11) In these situations, the one who has a "problem with authority" is, in fact, the person in authority. An unjust exercise of authority builds resentment on the part of those who are the victims of the unjust decrees. History demonstrates that abuse of authority - real or apparent - can quickly become the basis of bitter reaction and revolution. History also demonstrates that those holding legitimate authority have a grave responsibility to exercise it with justice and prudence or risk wasting the goodwill and respect that comes wit their exalted positions.
The Old Testament reveals the legitimacy of God's authority over man. Throughout the Old Testament, man repeatedly fails. But God in His everlasting mercy repeatedly renews His covenant with man as His people await a definitive redeemer. God did not have an obligation to demonstrate or "earn" the majesty of His authority. But He did so because we are slow to understand. In His love for us, He is patient.
Yet many of us continue to have a problem with His authority.
When the angel Gabriel appears to Zechariah, husband of Mary's cousin Elizabeth, the old man has serious difficulties with the authoritative message. Advised that Elizabeth would bear a son in her old age, Zechariah responds with skepticism: "How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years." Zechariah dares to resist the highest of authorities. As a result of his rejection of the good news, he is silenced "and unable to speak until the day these things come to pass," until his son, John the Baptist, is born into the world.
In this week's Gospel God sends the same angel Gabriel to Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin's name is Mary. He greets her with, 'Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you.'" The angel then reveals, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end."
At first glace, Mary's response seems to be similar to that of Zechariah. She asks Gabriel, "How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?" The linguistic difference may be subtle; but a great chasm separates Mary's attitude from Zechariah's. Zechariah is skeptical. Mary is merely confused. Zechariah demands to be satisfied by a further explanation from the angel's explanation. He knows his wife is too old to bear a son. How could Gabriel provide sufficient evidence to the contrary?
Mary, on the other hand, asks the question in faith. The Virgin knows the love of God and trusts Him to help her dispel her confusion. Regardless of the explanation, Mary is receptive to the authoritative reply. The proof is her most sublime fiat or "yes" to God: "Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word." The reward is immediate: And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us!
Mary's flawless faith seeking understanding is a model for all of us. God expects honest questions in times of confusion, provided the questions do not reveal any true "problem with authority" rooted in skepticism, selfishness or pride. But there is no foul in entering into a truly faithful and robust prayerful dialog, provided there is the spirit of respect and obedience. (Mary's example of respectful and obedient questioning may even be fruitful in our families and workplaces.)
With an all-merciful God, we can always beg for forgiveness. But, it is better to ask, with the humility of Mary, for guidance from an all-loving Authority.
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