The Faces of Authority

In keeping with our great distinction between experts and despots, we make much sharper distinctions between different types of authority than was common in the culture of the New Testament (or Old Testament, for that matter). Consider these two passages from Matthew:

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.

“About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went.

“He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’

“‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered.

“He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’

“When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’

“The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius.  So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’

“But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ (Matthew 20:1-13 NIV)

Here the landowner engages the services of free men to do a definite task for a price. It’s a simple hiring transaction with no long-term obligation, not much different than a employer-employee relationship today.

“Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.

“At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.

“But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.

“His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’

“But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.

“Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.

“This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” (Matthew 18:23-35 NIV)

In this case, not only is the servant jailed for debt, he is also tortured. This is an atrocity in our contemporary culture. It is unthinkable that someone would be tortured for a debt. But the same word (kurios, Strong’s 2962) is used for the landowner in the first story (“the owner of the vineyard,” Matthew 20:8 NIV) as is used for the master in the second story (“in anger his master handed him over,” Matthew 18:34 NIV). Both stories are parables of Jesus about the Kingdom of Heaven recorded in Matthew. Although the two masters have different specific relationships to the servants in the two stories, their authority is not considered essentially different in the way that we would distinguish ‘office manager’ from ‘slave master’.

We think of a slave master, an employer, and a high-ranking politician has having three fundamentally different kinds of authority. The first we consider inherently wicked and perverse; the second, generally a mutually beneficial relationship; and our view of the third depends wildly on whether we believe that particular politician represents our interests. The politician might be considered as corrupt as the slave master or more beneficent than the employer, all depending on our political views. But the ancient lack of distinction is starting to creep back up on us. Although generally we do see employers and employees as both benefiting, in some crowds the employer’s benefit dwarfs the employee’s to the point where we now use the term “wage slave.” In our use this is an entirely derogatory term, pushing an employer into the category of a wicked and corrupt slave owner. In ancient contexts the view was more mixed; although it was generally considered better to be free, a slave or bondservant might consider themselves to enjoy such advantages from a good master than they voluntarily continue the relationship when they might get out (Deuteronomy 15:12-18). But we cannot even suggest today that a slave might choose his service without being considered racist and dishonest – a legacy of the race-based slavery in the United States.

It might be worth stating here explicitly that preferring to remain a slave or bondservant has always been the exception and never the rule. When Paul writes to the Corinthians about freedom in Christ, he says “Were you a bondservant when called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity)” (1 Corinthians 7:21 ESV). It is assumed unless demonstrated otherwise that everyone would prefer freedom. Perhaps today a lifetime career with a single company is about as common as voluntary bondservice was then – you can find it, but it is not considered normal.

The modern notion of a “wage slave” ironically helps us bridge the gap to the ancient perspective on bondservice. There are some jobs in our economy that we would conventionally say nobody would chose. Stereotypically, working in fast food or big-box retail would never be anyone’s first choice. Yet most of us do not regard holding such jobs as being subject to evil. (Some, of course, would say so.) For most people, these unpleasant jobs are something to work your way out of and to avoid as much as possible, but they are not institutions of evil to which no person should ever be subjected. In some ways they form a part of the overall continuum of jobs, along which we are always trying to move to a “better” job. Typically a “better” job is one with more responsibility and more monetary compensation. This kind of improvement was available to at least some servants in New Testament times (Luke 19:11-19).

The ultimate difference between our conception of authority and the understanding of the New Testament authors is that we see authority as antithetical to love. A relationship of authority cannot be a relationship of love. We have established this in widespread regulations prohibiting romantic involvement between a boss and an employee. Such a relationship is certainly open to abuses, but relationships of authority are always open to abuse, inherently so. Prohibiting sexual activity between boss and employee is not effective–neither at preventing such activity nor at eliminating abuses of power. But since we have generally confused sex with love, we prohibit sex and then pretend that no kind of love exists between authority and subject. We can talk about how we admire our boss or respect him; we can speak of our boss as a mentor and perhaps even as a friend. But it is taboo to say that you love your boss (in any genuine sense, beyond the trivial use of ‘love’ that can be applied to any passing fancy). Likewise, although it is permissible to love your country, it is weird and taboo to love the president. We just do not see authority and love as compatible. If we do love any person in power, we may only love them ‘as a person,’ as distinct from their role of authority. That ‘person’ we love does not have authority, of course, only the office… the walls and the desk and the chair, but not ‘the person.’ Even many parents are at pains to try to relate to their children as equals, and remove or disguise the authority that they have over their children. Finally, we apply our dislike of authority to God himself. In all the traditional notions of God, God has power. In our modern notions God does not have power, or cannot use his power, or chooses not to use his power, because a God who is actively more powerful than ourselves is beyond our love (so we think). God cannot be both lovable and powerful. Power is bad, so God becomes a helpless good.

The modern contradiction between authority and love is not known in the Bible. The most obvious example of a lovable (rightly beloved) authority is Jesus himself. Peter’s word ‘Lord’ below is the same word as in the two parables earlier, with the hired field workers and the indebted servant:

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” He said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.” (John 21:15-17 ESV)

There are of course countless other examples of the relationship between Jesus and his disciples involving  both authority and love. Arguably, any relationship we are to emulate in the New Testament that involves authority also involves love. But one in particular will serve to illustrate how deeply opposed we are today to allowing authority and love to mix: Peter’s comment to wives about submission. “For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their own husbands, as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord” (1 Peter 3:5-6 ESV). We cannot in our culture imagine a wife calling her husband ‘lord’ or anything even close: ‘master,’ ‘boss,’ even ‘sir’. By “we” I mean myself if no one else. It is frankly appalling to me to imagine a wife referring to her husband this way. It does not sound romantic. It does not sound like a term of love or an address that expects to be loved. But this proves that my hearing is wrong, because whatever the situation actually was between Abraham and Sarah (flawed humans, both, and not in all ways good examples), this is the same way that Jesus’ own disciples addressed him. If there is truth in the love of Christ, then, it cannot be impossible to combine with that word ‘lord.’

This is the third part in a series on Authority. You can find the other parts here.