Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Question of Authority


Last night at the dinner table, one of our children asked me if he could have some more pasta. "No," I said, without hesitation but with a playful tone in my voice and look in my eye. Immediately, he turned to his mother and made the same request. It's a tactic all children know. If dad says no, ask mom. That strategy is usually more effective if mom and dad aren't sitting at the table together, listening to each other's responses.

We like to push the boundaries and see where the real authority lies. If the customer service representative on the phone cannot give us what we want, we appeal to her supervisor and, then, perhaps to a manager. Healthy systems communicate the same message at each level. If the boss is undermining the employee's ability to make decisions on the front line, then why have employees making decisions on the front line in the first place? If mom is going to reverse dad's decision, why would dad bother to give an answer up front? "Go ask your mother," is the response we give when we aren't confident in our unified approach.

The lame man by the Sheep Gate pool in John 5:1-18 runs into conflicting levels of authority. He's been ill for thirty-eight years, John tells us, more or less lying in the same spot. The pool is said to have magic healing properties. Whenever the water is stirred up, supposedly by an angel, whoever gets into the water first is healed of whatever condition she or he brings with him into the magic waters. The challenge, of course, is getting down into the water first, and, for a lame man, that seems an impossibility.

Jesus appears and offers the man the healing he cannot even muster the strength to ask for. "Do you wish to be made well?" Jesus asks him. Fixated on his limitations, he replies, "Sir, I have no one to put me into the water." Jesus then orders him to stand up, take up his mat, and walk, at which point the man's strength returns to his lower limbs. Obedient to the one who healed him, he rolls up his mat and carries it with him out of the portico.

Then, some keepers of the Law see the man in clear violation of the sabbath. "You are not allowed to carry your mat on the sabbath! What are you doing? Why are you breaking the Law?" The man's reply is simple: "The man who made me well said to me, 'Take up your mat and walk,' so I did." The focus of the interrogators shifts from the man carrying the mat to the other breaker of the sabbath, Jesus, whose healing of the man was, again, a violation of the fourth commandment. In the showdown that ensues, Jesus appeals to a greater wisdom--"My Father is still working, and I also am working"--acknowledging that, despite the tradition of divine sabbath rest, God never takes a vacation. But the philosophical appeal, although surely familiar to these legal scholars, was beyond what they would accept. "He's one of those radicals who thinks he can change everything," they said to themselves. "We have to get him. If he's not stopped, everything we hold dear will fall apart before our eyes."

Which authority is right? And how do we know?

There are lots of hints in this story, little layers of meaning that John uses to convey truth. He tells us that there were five porticoes, which remind us of the five books of Moses, the Torah. John points out that the man has been lying there for thirty-eight years. How does he know? Does the man have a sign that advertises how long he has been stuck in that place? Or is John trying to remind us of the forty years that Israel wandered in the wilderness, searching for salvation? Don't forget that to a Greek ear or eye, the word "made well" is the same word as "saved," so John isn't only talking about the man being healed but also about him being saved. And so we find ourselves confronting not only a miracle story enacted on the sabbath but also a question about the nature of salvation and where salvation is to be found.

How do we know which authority to follow? Consider the ways that you identify with the lame man. Have you ever felt lost? Ever felt helpless? Ever been stuck in a place that you could not work your way out of? Ever had a relationship that you couldn't fix? Ever encountered a malady that not even the most powerful prayer could heal? If you haven't, you will, or maybe you already have and are just lying to yourself.

The authority that Jesus represents is that of the universal law of grace. Our efforts will go a long way. We can take care of our bodies, our families, our businesses, and our finances. With hard work, we can build great monuments to our own achievement. But ultimately can we get ourselves where our hearts yearn to be? Can we bring ourselves into the stream of living water? Can we satisfy our unquenchable thirst or meet our always-present hunger? The lame man reminds us that we can't. We can't will ourselves down into that pool. Only God's help can get us there. That's not new to Jesus. That's always been the truth. The Law of Moses kept God's people in relationship with God, but eventually--whether it's imprisonment in Egypt, starvation in the wilderness, the Babylonian Exile, the destruction of the Second Temple, the persecutions of Greece or Rome, the horrors of the twentieth century, or the creeping secularism of recent days--we discover that we need something more that we can manufacture for ourselves. Only that authority--the one who helps us when we cannot help ourselves--gives us hope.

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