Dr. Robert R. Ball
AUTHORITY FIGURES I HAVE KNOWN
Sermon, September 26, 1971
A U T H O R I T Y
F I G U R E S
H A V E
K N O W N
Scripture: Matthew 7:28-29
Dr. Robert R. Ball
MEMORIAL DRIVE PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH
Houston, Texas Sept. 26, 1971
YOU MAY NOT be aware of it. You may not believe it when I tell you, but
the evidence is quite convincing. People spend most of their lives
struggling with authority figures, of which their parents are only the first in a
* The small child is told what he can and cannot eat, what he can and
cannot touch, what he can and cannot wear, even when he can and
cannot relieve himself.
* In case you have forgotten, even a small child sometimes resents that.
So each one works out his own ways by which his resentment can be
* But the child must be careful about expressing resentment. Those
same authority figures are the ones on whom he must depend for
food and shelter and security.
This process never really changes. There are always people on whom we
must depend for our livelihood or our sense of well-being. There are
always authority figures in our lives, and how we deal with them is a major
influence in the shaping of our personalities.
SOME people’s lives are a picture of active rebellion against all kinds
of authority. To them the police are the “fuzz,” the boss is “old iron pants,”
the wife is an “old bat,” and the government is “big dumb-dumbs.” The big
deal with such people is to assert their independence. Any thing less, they
say, would be a denial of personal integrity. So they chart their course to
do the opposite of whatever is expected of them, Sometimes they are very
exciting people, but sometimes they are very lonely and discouraged.
Living in defiance of authority is destructive anarchy as much inside of a
person’s soul as it is inside of a society.
OTHER people live in compliant submission to whatever may be the
prevailing authority. They never talked back to mother when they were
young, and her advice is still the best available – on most any subject. They
don’t talk back to authority figures today, and they condemn those who do.
MOST of us, I suppose, are somewhere in between, trying to do a little
of both – a little rebelling and a little obeying. That gets to be frustrating too.
Dealing with authority figures is a complex and confusing business; but,
like it or not, there is no way to avoid it.
Dealing with authority always has been a problem – as evidenced by
these two verses which Matthew adds as a postscript to Jesus’ Sermon on
“And when Jesus finished these sayings,
the crowds were astonished at his teaching,
for he taught them as one who had authority,
and not as their scribes.”
The scribes in that society represented the full weight of traditional and
established authority. They were the interpreters of the ancient and holy law.
* By virtue of their position, the scribes were the authority figures who let a
person know whether he could feel good or poorly about himself as a
* If a person obeyed the law, as interpreted by the scribes, he could
hold his head high, confident that he was a good and proper person.
* If he did not meet the specifications laid down by the scribes, then
he was forced to think of himself as an abomination to both God
No matter how independent you are, no one really enjoys being labeled a
“no-goodnick”; but these people had little choice. The scribes had the
authority and the people the heartache.
THEN Jesus came along. he stood before them with no visible authority
at all. He was not backed up by an army or money or any recognizable
religious credentials. He was not endorsed by the Daughters of the Israeli
Exodus – or any other prestigious group. From all you could see by
looking, he had nothing but himself. And yet, when he had finished
speaking, the people were astonished for he spoke as one having
THE scribes were the authority figures; but it was Jesus and not they
who was received as having authority. What an absolute contrast! Their
authority was external; his was internal. Their authority was imposed, his
was experienced. It was as if when he spoke, something within them gladly
reached out to respond – and said, “Yes.”
“What this man says is true! His words resonate within our experience.
We know that he is talking to us and not about a lot of fuzzy ideas. He calls
into question much of what we do and do not do, but he does not condemn
us! On the contrary, we experience his loving concern for us. He wants
good things for us – a fuller life. As we listen to him, the whole world opens
up with hope and possibilities. He speaks with authority, no question about
that; but while the external authority of the scribes seems hollow, his
authority comes through as authentic.”
WELL, what about us? Frequently you hear it said, “The trouble with
kids today is that they have no respect for authority.” I agree. That is a
serious problem. But there is an even deeper problem which lies behind it.
I am even more concerned that many of those in positions of authority have
lost for themselves.
DO you know what people do when they lose confidence in
themselves? Some shrivel up and disappear, but many of us begin yelling
that much louder.
* When does a teacher start screaming authoritarian commands around
the classroom? Isn’t it when she feels herself losing control of the
* When do parents shout things like, “Not as long as you’re living under
my roof, you won’t!”? Isn’t it when they feel their authority slipping?
* When do youngsters threaten us with, “If I can’t have it my way, I’m
leaving home!”? It isn’t when they feel confident and strong, just the
How can we expect the young or anyone else to respect our authority when
we don’t really respect it ourselves?
THIS was the problem with the scribes. They were the guardians of
God’s holy law – a very eminent and responsible position. But, and we can
all understand how it happens, they become more concerned with
maintaining th influence of their own authority than they were with bearing
witness to the authority of God. When that happens, the authority of God
becomes only a phrase, useful in beating some poor sinnerover the head.
With God out of the picture, even though they still used his name constantly,
the scribes really had no authority. So, as they felt their influence slipping
away, they really has no authority. So as they felt their influence slipping
away, they became all the more authoritarian and dogmatic.
THIS was the difference. Jesus believed profoundly in the authority of
God. He lived under the authority himself and depended upon it. He never
made any claims for himself. He wasn’t trying to prove a thing. he didn’t
need to get people to bow down before him as support for a shakey ego.
He was absolutely confident that accepting and sharing the love of God is
the only way to life, He did not try to impose his convictions on anyone. He
knew that love accepted as a threat is no real love at all. So when he
spoke of the love of God, he did it with real love for those to whom he
WHAT he said rang through as true, and truth has a way of establishing
its own authority. The people not only heard what he said, they
experienced the reality of it.
THIS, it seems to me, is the crucial lesson for us. The kind of authority
we accept over us is the kind of authority we ourselves become. As I
thought on this, I recalled a TV show that i saw some ten or twelve years
A MENNONITE-type religious community was making the long trek
across America by covered wagon. Along the way, one of the men in the
group died. His oldest son, a teenager, stepped in as the head of the
family. He did a man’s work and assisted his mother in caring for the
younger children. He did something, however, I can’t remember what it
was, that was not acceptable behavior for teenagers by the standards of
that community. Some of the elders in the clan felt that since the boy had
no father, it was their duty to discipline him; but the boy refused to accept it
because he felt that he had become a man. It came to a showdown: The
elders insisting on their authority and the boy defying it. At the crucial,
dramatic moment, the boy asked them, “Who disciplines you?” A very
WITHOUT any threat or intimidation, the people recognized and
respected the authority of Jesus. He lived under the authority of a personal
God whose most passionate purpose is that his children love each other.
Jesus accepted the authority of God, and that is the kind of authority he
himself became. The people sensed that he was sensitive to their needs
and their longings. When he spoke, they knew that he understood the
depth of their pain and the heights of their yearnings for love and respect
and peace. He was ans authority of love and forgiveness. Because he was
confident of God, Jesus was able to be confident about himself; and those
whom he touched felt their lives fill up with confidence also.
THE scribes on the other hand had gotten separated from God. All they
had left were the written words of God’s law. That was their authority. The
authority they accepted was a hard and cold and impersonal listing of
rules, and that’s the kind of authority they became. They spent their time
defending an empty authority in which they had no real confidence
themselves, and they demanded obedience to it in an effort to bolster their
own fearful spirits. This got across to the people de-humanizing and
manipulative, which it was; so the people spent their time resenting and
resisting the scribes’ authority.
IT’S a crucial question to ask – “Who disciplines you?” It reveals the
kind if authority we accept, and the kind of authorities we will be in our
relations with others.
C O N C L U S I O N
I THINK that the single, biggest difficulty people have in accepting
Christ as their Lord it the fear that to do so would be the end of their
freedom and individuality. The image we have of authority figures is that
they confine and compel. To commit ourselves to Christ, we fear, would
stifle our dreams of being significant – forcing us to accept a position of
weakness, living like children unable to cope with life.
BUT, to their astonishment, the people there on the Mount found
something quite different in Christ, and so have millions of others since.
This Jesus is a different kind of authority figure – one who liberates us to
live rather than restricting.
TO ACCEPT Jesus’ authority is to accept the authority of what he says
to us, to accept his judgment that we are capable and
responsible persons. He allows us a real confidence in
our ability to live.
TO ACCEPT Jesus’ authority is to become that same kind of authority
ourselves, an authority that depends on love and not on
the pressure we can apply.
TO ACCEPT the authority of Jesus allows us to live in the fullness of
hope – a hope that depends not on our ability to control
the world and the people in it (which is always a futile
ambition), but a hope that depends on the power and
love of the Almighty God.
OF all the authority figures I have ever known, this one is the most
authentic, compassionate, confidence-inspiring, and convincing – this
from the collection of Pamela Mudd Conlan