Today’s readings amount to a primer in the study of “authority.”
In the familiar story from Genesis, Joseph finds himself in a position to wield amazing authority over an entire nation’s economy—authority delegated to him by Pharaoh on the basis of what we today would probably call his God-given intelligence and intuitions. From everything we are told, he exercises that power responsibly. Admittedly, he does use his lordly position to trick his brothers into recognizing their own prior jealousy and anger for what it was; some might even argue that he goes a little far, that he abuses his authority. But when it comes to the big picture, there is no doubt who is the hero of this thoroughly upbeat story. Joseph emerges as a wise and God-fearing young man who narrowly escapes an ugly death at the hands of brigands and earns his position of authority by paying attention to the gifts he has been given, using them consistently to help others.
In Matthew’s Gospel, the twelve disciples fan out across the Holy Land bearing a very different kind of authority: the authority to “cure … disease and … illness.” The modern world tends to see the ability to heal more as a matter of skill than of authority. But we still regard it is a very special gift. Doctors and nurses, mental health workers and pastors receive and employ this gift for the benefit of those in need (just as Joseph wielded the authority that Pharaoh had give him for the benefit not just of Egypt but of the whole world as it was then known).
I admit that when I read the Genesis passage, I am tempted to cast myself in the role of Joseph (rather than as the quarrelsome Reuben, for example, or one of the other brothers). And when I read Matthew’s account of the beginning of the disciples’ ministry, I want to put myself in their shoes. I happen not to work in the health professions, but I still want to believe that I am making good use of the authority (or skills) that God has given me. In both cases, and especially to the extent that I can from time to time live up to the high standards that each story sets, my effort to see myself as a figure with “authority” is probably a good thing.
Yet the psalmist sounds a cautionary note: “The LORD brings to nought the plans of nations,” he reminds us; “he foils the designs of peoples.” In the final analysis, it is God who “deliver[s] [us] from death and preserve[s] [us] in spite of famine,” and we do well to remember where all authority derives from. “Authority forgets a dying king,” wrote the poet Tennyson. Better then that we should pray with the psalmist, “Lord, let your mercy be on us, as we place our trust in you.”
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