2+2=4. Is that correct? Even if the teacher wrote the wrong answer on the board, you would still know the truth. Even if the wrong answer was printed in the answer section at the back of the book, you would still know the right answer. You would hold up two fingers on one hand and two fingers on the other hand and count. One, two, three, four.
What about dx²/dy=2x? Is that the right answer? Some of us have no idea. So if a teacher told us that the equation was true, we would believe him/her because the teacher is an authority. But if you are a beginning calculus student, the teacher will not be satisfied for you to simply memorize the formula. The truth of the equation does not depend on the teacher’s “say-so.” The answer is not determined by the authority (the teacher or the textbook). Rather it resides in the inherent structure of numbers. (Note for math whizzes: I’ve carefully stayed within the realm of concrete math. I make no pretense of understanding “higher math.”)
The gospel stories occasionally report the amazement of the crowds at the authority of Jesus. What made Jesus so authoritative? Two elements jump out: First he demonstrated power over the forces of darkness. Demons fled. Disease and pain disappeared. You did not have to “believe in” Jesus to observe the effects of his authority. Second, what Jesus taught corresponded to the deepest moral convictions of the people who heard him. Compassion, justice, mercy, honesty, forgiveness, sexual probity were not novel ideas. They were not abstruse, mysterious, hidden notions. Jesus did not speak a “secret knowledge.” The startling content of Jesus’ teaching was his call to actually begin living in the direction of our ideals.
Jesus himself was dismissive of questions of authority. They usually serve primarily as distractions from the most important question: Will we move toward the highest ideals of loving God and loving people, or will we allow lesser goals to dominate our imaginations? Authority is legitimate when it enhances human well-being. It is illegitimate when it maintains its prerogatives at the expense of those subordinate to it.
We may find some of Jesus’ teachings as simple as 2+2=4. Other statements may be as puzzling as dx²/dy=2x. We can be most confident that we comprehend his sayings when our understanding of his words moves us toward what is best and sweetest.
Note: My sermon on Sabbath, January 26, 2013, addressed the issue of authority. It was titled “The Wisdom of Jesus.” You can read the manuscript at http://www.liberaladventist.blogspot.com. The audio is available at http://greenlakesda.org/whats-happening/services/.