Authority that Serves
21th Sunday of the Year (A)

Antonio P. Pueyo
Reproduced with Permission

This Sunday’s readings present us with two ways of exercising authority. In the first reading, the prophet Isaiah warns Shebna, a royal steward in the court of king Hezekiah. He is ambitious and has grand plans, including building a sepulcher on high grounds for himself as the pagans do (Is. 22:16). In his case, authority is seen as a personal privilege to advance one’s self-interests. The Gospel however speaks of another kind of using authority. Authority is for service. Peter is declared by Jesus as the rock on which he will build his church (Mt. 16:18). It is now incumbent upon Peter to heed the words of the Lord that the first should be the last, that he must serve and not to be served, that his declaration of love for the Lord leads to feeding the lamb and the sheep.

Power is a double-edged sword. One can wield it for ill or for well.

The key is a symbol of authority. In ancient times, keys were large and cumbersome (more than a foot long). Only the most trusted steward carries the key to the king’s chambers. The one who keeps the key has power and authority since he has the king’s ears. He can admit or prohibit anyone who comes to see the king. When Jesus tells Peter that he is given the keys of the kingdom of heaven so that what he prohibits on earth will be prohibited in heaven and what he permits on earth will be permitted in heaven, it simply means that Peter is given a special authority as a leader of the community of believers. The primacy of Peter among the Twelve is a consistent church tradition. The present Holy Father Benedict XVI is at the front end of a long line of succession dating back to Peter, the first pope.

Why Peter would be chosen above the rest, only the Lord knows, as the second reading says, “Who knows the mind of the Lord?” (Rom. 11:34). Like any other human being, Peter had his weaknesses. He was impulsive. He spoke first, and thought about it later like when he tried walking on the water. He was a contradiction. He had his moments of cowardice when he denied the Lord but he was the first to defend him with his sword when Jesus was arrested. He was head of the apostles, yet he listened to the correction of Paul, a latecomer in the group. That may be the reason why the Lord chose Peter. His experience of his own weaknesses kept him humble. He was a leader who thought not so much of his own benefit, rather, he thought only of what was good for the whole church. He taught, he admonished, and he listened. He exercised authority yet he was also flexible, flexible enough to listen to Paul, the new convert.

Our reflections bring us to our own attitude toward authority – as exercised by us, or when exercised by others over us.

We are bestowed with authority in many ways. Some are born to it, as in cultures where the eldest child is naturally recognized as the leader or where one inherits a title by birth. One may have climbed to a position of authority by hard work and merit. Still others may have attained such positions of authority by the force of their character and personal magnetism. Power has its own dynamics and if one is not careful, power could indeed corrupt. As somebody said, “It is hard to be humble when you are as famous as I am.” A person in power should be constantly aware of temptations to corruption. There is some sense to the Roman practice of appointing a servant to whisper to the emperor during his triumphant parade, “This too will pass.”

When others exercise authority over us, we must be aware of two extremes, that of unquestioning subservience and that of rebellious acquiescence. We normally have to follow and obey duly constituted authority, insofar as doing so contributes to the common good and does not go against the laws of God. It makes sense to obey traffic laws and other ordinances. It irritates us when a bigwig goes against the flow of traffic or uses ambulance horns to pass others and show how important he is. It does happen in my part of the country.

Action starter: What are you in power for?