Thirty years ago, Father John McKenzie disturbed our ecclesiastical status quo with his book "Authority in the Church." Though most readers and reviewers zeroed in on the second half of his work (McKenzie's application of his findings to the last 1960s' Church), the first half (his actual exploration of biblical authority texts) is the more important.

This methodical exegesis of the material led to Father McKenzie's major thesis: Almost all Scriptural passages pertaining to authority warn against or condemn leaders' abuse of authority. Relatively nothing is said about the people's obligation to obey authority. Any student of the Bible realizes that this means abuse, not disobedience, was the main problem the Sacred Authors faced through the centuries.

No doubt such misuse of leadership triggers the first reading (Jer 23:1-6): "Woe to the shepherds," Yahweh announces, "who mislead and scatter the flock of my pasture." This abuse had gotten so bad 600 years before Jesus that Yahweh personally plans to step in to "gather the remnant of my flock...and bring them back to their meadow." Locked into a system in which the civil/religious leaders were kings, Jeremiah assures his people that God will one day "raise up a righteous shoot to David....He shall do what is just and right in the land."

Jesus and authority

Though Jeremiah never predicted the coming of Jesus as such, most Christians traditionally apply these words to Him. He's one biblical leader who never misuses authority. Jesus shares our existence to care for His flock. Not only does His concern for His returning apostles in the Gospel (Mk 6:30-34) show this overwhelming care (unlike Herod, who misuses his authority by killing John the Baptist in the narrative inserted between the sending out and the return of the apostles), but the mention of Jesus' reaction to the gathering crowd reinforces the picture of a true "leader/Lord." "He (Jesus) pitied them because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and He began to teach them at great length."

The latter comment is very important. Teachers exercise authority not by obligating their students to do certain things, but by helping them through instruction to personally discover and follow the proper path. Mark seems to be saying that good Christian leaders lead not by edict, but by patiently assisting their communities in building a new moral basis for their actions.

That's why the second reading (Eph 2:13-18) fits perfectly between our two authority passages. In it, Paul partially tells us what our leaders should be instructing us about. We find the theme of his letter in the last two verses. "He (Jesus) came and preached peace to you who were far off (the Gentiles) and peace to those who were near (the Jews), for through Him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father."

Gathering

Paul believes that among Jesus' most significant traits is His ability to unite individuals who are naturally separated by culture, religion and race. Though no two groups are more dissimilar than Jews and Gentiles, Jesus "made both one and broke down the dividing wall of enmity,...creating in Himself one new person in place of the two." Considering the 2,000 years of separation (and frequent animosity) between Christians and Jews, some of our leaders must not have been good imitators of Jesus. Going back to what Jeremiah said, good leaders don't scatter; they gather.

I clearly remember the impression the newly elected Pope John XXIII made on me, a teenage seminarian, during the first months of his pontificate. Through well-publicized actions, he reached out to Jews, Protestants and prisoners. In each case, his gestures made me feel closer to persons who had always been quite distant from me. John didn't issue encyclicals on Jews, Protestants or prisoners. He simply taught, by his actions, that God wants us to be one.

I felt those same sensations of oneness last year when the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin announced his Common Ground Project. Somehow, our Spirit-filled guts tell us when a leader is really leading.

(07-17-97)