Jesus addresses the crowd in today’s Gospel, telling them what the abuse of authority looks like. He uses the Pharisees as an example of how those given authority can quickly be perverted by a false sense of worth due to their lofty religious titles.
The authority vested in an individual can be an intoxicating mixture because the power derived from that authority tempts a person to forget the meaning of authority. And once forgotten, abuses often follow.
Any authority, from the smallest to the grand, has a common characteristic. Authority is given by civil society, religious institutions, or by nature to a person with the power to act on behalf of those being served. The most crucial facet of authority is not the power a person can attain by themselves but the power given for a specific task in service to the other. Even Jesus’ authority was given to him by his heavenly Father, and his power was linked to his service to humanity by giving himself for our salvation. “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”
In contrast to the proper use of authority, Jesus attacks the Pharisees by calling out their misuse of authority by stating, “For they preach but they do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens hard to carry and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they will not lift a finger to move them. All their works are performed to be seen.”
Jesus makes the critical distinction while critiquing the Pharisees by noting the Word of God they preach is not the problem, only how these individual men think the law doesn’t seem to apply to them or how they can gain from their title more advantages than those who are not of their position. He says not to follow their example but cautions his listeners to continue integrating the law of God into their own lives.
By doing so, Jesus establishes that all authority human beings may have been given is ultimately rooted in God’s divine power. Before his crucifixion, Pilate, who had civil authority, said to Jesus, “Do you know that I have the power to release you, and I have the power to crucify you?” Jesus answered him, “You would have no power over me if it had not been given to you from above.”
The basis of divine power extended to human beings to adjudicate and lead people through temporal and spiritual issues must contain the characteristic of service for that authority not to be abused. Jesus’ whole life on earth exemplified this principle perfectly and taught his disciples to do the same. “The greatest among you must be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”
Most people, at one time or another, will have been given positions of authority. It may be a supervisor or executive in the workplace. It may be being a parent of a child or taking on the role of a caregiver of an aging parent or relative. In all of these situations, the authority and power inherent in the position must be rooted in the intention of serving those we oversee and not by enriching ourselves.
When service to others becomes the foundation of the authority we have been given, the temptation of abusing that authority is kept in check, and we work in concert with God’s designs. All authority in heaven and on earth comes from him alone. We only share it for a short time.