Authorising Authority: Learning from the Gospel of Matthew

Authority is a given. It is given not in the sense of being obvious but in the sense of a gift. None other than Jesus is the one who stands with the givenness of authority. He himself declared that ‘all authority in heaven and earth is given to me’ (Mat 28: 18). If authority is given, it pre-exists before us. How do we stand before this pre-existing authority? What sort of living space can such an authority provide for you and me? Being declared and claimed as a gift of the post-resurrection era, does that mean authority has to die and rise? How are we then to appropriate authority in a manner that is not deadening? We have this challenge to let authority be both alive and life-giving. Hence we have to sight it, take a closer look at it, be incited by it, recite it, and exercise it with care. On whose authority do we stand? Can the Gospel of Matthew which closes with citation of the gift of authority be of help? It appears so. This is because it also begins by citing authority. The genealogy (Mat 1: 1-17) is framing its message authoritatively. By positioning Jesus’ ancestry to Abraham and King David, Mathew attempts to portray authoritatively that Jesus was a true messiah. This means the genealogy in Matthew has a function that presents Jesus as the authorised one and only messiah. 

 Jesus inherits the authority of a tradition. It is given to him through genealogy. He stands in relation to the past of the community and receives authority to bring about a new future. But there is an immediate disruption in the chain of this genealogical inheritance. It disrupts the human patriarchal chain with the narrative of virgin birth through mother Mary. The virgin birth underlines the divine birth of Jesus as a son of God. The virgin birth crosses and keeps the human genealogy of Jesus under erasure. This enables us to think together what otherwise we cannot think together. It authorises us to think together about both the humanity and divinity of Jesus. The human genealogy that is marked by death becomes marked by life in the virgin birth. This is how authority that Mathew attempts to establish by citing the genealogy of the ancestry of Jesus is given an effect of being born again / reaching resurrection. Mathew brings this effect by juxtaposing two contradictory narratives of the origin/ birth of Jesus. 

Does that mean all authority has to pass through this disruption? In other words, has the authority of every shape and hue to undergo death and resurrection? Thus this means the authority has to cut its umbilical cord and begin from a non-beginning (like a virgin birth). The new authority is certainly not a masculine patriarchal authority. Christians nowhere worshipped the Holy Spirit as lingam as we find in fertility cults and even Shaivism. The new authority as Mathew himself will indicate is one of service. Jesus will declare that he has come to serve and not be served (Mat 20:28). It is a non-dominating authority. It is a servant authority. This means there is always a gap or crack in the authority that is given. It has to be filled by egoless service that does not exclude death. Authority in this self-giving/ self-dying service authorises itself. Mathew’s narrative presents the Holy Spirit like the God of Genesis, who again and again, hovers over what is an empty gap and cracked/ barren zone of authority and renders it creative: fertile and pregnant. 

Mathew aligns with tradition as a source of authority through his genealogy but negates and reconstitutes (resurrects) it with the narrative of the virginal birth of Jesus without exactly cancelling it. This means Mathew writes the sources of authority under what Derrida will call erasure to enable us to think together both the divine and the human sources of authority. The genealogical tree of the tradition is both broken and kept so that the virginal birth occurs in accordance with the promise of God proclaimed by God’s word. In breaking as well keeping the tradition Mathew enabled it to be reinvented in and through the virginal birth of Jesus. Like Abraham who breaks with his past and moves in response to God’s call, Jesus is also one who breaks tradition, law, Sabbath so that it is transformed in accordance with the mandate of God’s Kingdom. Jesus negates and cancels the old covenant and simultaneously keeps it in a transformed condition. This is why he says that ‘ I have not come to do away with the law but to complete it’ (Mat5:17). This means the old covenant is not abrogated but is reconstituted and resurrected in the new covenant. Therefore, the old covenant is kept under erasure while the new covenant is made operational. 

 One can also find the theme of the fulfilment of the prophecy as another way that Mathew tries to source the authority of Jesus. Again we can see how Mathew uses the tension between tradition and breaks from it through prophecy in search of fulfilment in his text. Mathew authoritatively cites, rewrites and exceeds the Old Testament as he sees it being fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth. In a way Mathew reinterprets in the context of Jesus, the promises of the Old Testament to enable us to read both the New and Old Testaments together. Mathew cancels the institutional authority of the tradition while he takes forward the charismatic authority of the prophets to establish the source of the authority of Jesus through the charism or the gift of God. We can certainly see a break from tradition in Mathew but this break is a break by means of tradition. Therefore, the break that Mathew effects does not fully negate tradition but transforms it. This means the old covenant is transformed and is also present in the new covenant. This short reflection informs us that Mathew can be also thought of as the Gospel of Authority. We have great lessons to learn to be the authority and its subjects by following Mathews’ vision of authority as a gift.

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Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.

- Fr Victor Ferrao