Authority and Debt Collection
For about the past week I have been challenged to wrestle with the issue of authority. For most of my life I have had real conflicts with authority which have embedded powerful triggers deep in my psyche that have caused problems at times. Abuse of authority early on and dark pictures of God and His attitude towards me led me to assume many things that have both kept me afraid and also created deep seeds of rebellion that have shaped much of my life over the ensuing years.
For about a week I have been recording insights that keep coming to me regarding this issue of authority. I am coming to see more clearly distinct differences between the counterfeit ideas and practice of authority compared to what I believe is God's version and exercise of true authority. Some of these insights have come as a surprise to me, but they are also bringing relief and are having the effect of disarming some of the feelings of rebellion and fear that have long laid latent buried in my memories and subconsciousness. This morning I came across a story in which I find revealed principles of both kinds of authority that add even more to my growing understanding. Let me share the story here interwoven with my own comments. This story can be found in Luke chapter 7.
A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death.
This man related to and valued those within his spheres of influence differently than the religious people among the Jews. As will be seen unfolding in this story, their ideas of authority were very crass in contrast to his understanding and practice of authority. Their view of authority was along the lines of the world which views it as a means of forceful control rather than how God uses authority.
The narrative indicates a very serious situation with one of the man's slaves. Yet the spirit of this centurion toward his slave was in contrast to that typically held by many in that day. This man evidently valued people far more than most others around him which tells us from the start that his thinking and outlook on life was also very different. He demonstrated a value and respect for people whether they were labeled as slaves or commanders giving evidence that he was already familiar with the true principles of heaven that Jesus had come to reveal more clearly to our world.
When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave.
Evidently from the stories coming to him about Jesus and His interactions with others, this man recognized a kindred spirit in a man who viewed and treated people differently than what was commonly practiced. In Jesus he sensed another person who could understand a better way to relate to and practice authority. Based on the respect with which Jesus evidently treated people and the freedom He allowed each individual He met, this centurion presumed that Jesus would recognize and resonate with his own desire for assistance for his slave and would respond accordingly.
In looking for the best way to convey his urgent request to Jesus, this man did not look for the most impressive way to approach Jesus. Rather he chose to use authority by placing his trust in the Jewish elders, delegating them to convey his humble request to Jesus. He may have assumed that Jesus might more likely respond positively to religious people as well as more readily to people of His same culture rather than to an intimidating foreign soldier. He may also have thought he could trust the Jews he had befriended to use their sphere of authority have influence with this Jewish Rabbi hoping to strengthen his request.
What he didn't understand was the shallow selfishness of the Jews as well as the growing tension they felt towards Jesus. Though he may have had some indicators, I don't believe he grasped the extent to which the Jews were immersed in the counterfeit system of abusive authority and did not have an appreciation for the advanced concepts the centurion understood. In addition he did not take into account that Jesus might want to develop a direct relationship with him if possible.
When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, "He is worthy of having you do this for him,
The Jewish elders with no capacity to appreciate the higher maturity and practices of this centurion substituted his original request with a different but distorted message making his motives appear very different. In their version they implied that his intent was not simply a request based on his real concern for a slave and respectful of the true authority of Jesus. Their version of his request was based on the system of debt-collection from the realm of rewards and punishments in which they operated. They were counting on the system of earning and deserving, favors and debts all originating from the Tree of Good and Evil, rewards and punishments, while the centurion was thinking in a completely different vein along the lines of respect, honor, trust, freedom and love.
The Jews subverted his original honorable request into one of simply a collection on favors invested, thus dishonoring the very man they thought they were helping and presuming that Jesus would respond similarly. By distorting his motives to be like their own, they inadvertently exposed their own shallow thinking. If they were even aware, they likely viewed the honor and respect system in which both the centurion and Jesus operated as weak and unreliable when it came to things real life. They assumed incorrectly that the centurion was simply trying to cash in on years of favors he had shown the Jews and now they felt obligated to balance the scales to return the favors so they could feel less indebted. Thus they morphed a noble, honorable request into a crass attempt to balance the accounts of social indebtedness.
This system of debt and collection is a fundamental of the counterfeit system that Jesus came to expose, discredit and displace. Though He at times used illustrations apparently based on that model, His intent was always to lead humanity back into living under a completely different system – God's original plan free of all such slavish thinking. One problem with debt mentality is that it both undermines trust and destroys freedom. Debt injects fear into a relationship preventing people from fully trusting and loving each other. Debt mentality and practice is foreign to God's character of unconditional love and undermines its transforming power until forgiveness enters. Debt enslaves people emotionally and/or physically. Jesus came to set us free, not from some debt we think we owe to God but free of the entire mentality of thinking in that framework and how we perceive reality and God's attitudes toward us.
And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, "Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof;
The way in which the centurion's request was presented to Him couched as payment for a debt led Jesus to go along in the direction they presumed He needed to do. That does not mean He did not realize the faulty thinking of the Jews, but rather He played along with their version for a time in order to expose the distinct contrast between the two systems. But as the crowd began to approach the residence of the centurion he realized that his original request must have been mishandled and he scrambled to rectify the situation before it got any further out of hand. He did not want Jesus to think that He had to respond the way most people might expect preferring that trust and respect be the only factors involved. He did not want to dishonor Jesus in any way so insisted on remaining obscure and humble, keeping the focus on the real issue at hand instead of seeking to draw attention to himself.
In the way the request had been presented to Jesus it was clear the Jews did not understand the motives of the centurion and had interpreted his words to reflect motives more like their own. As a result, when he realized what they must have done he felt compelled to send different people, real friends this time, who understood him better, people he could trust more to convey his true intent respectfully to Jesus.
The centurion was likely embarrassed and felt betrayed by the religious leaders' subversion of his original simple request into appearing to be a selfish collection for previous favors. He had far more respect for Jesus than the Jewish elders had and he realized suddenly that he would need to correct their misrepresentation of his motives by clarifying what he originally intended to ask of Jesus.
therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed.
The centurion operated with an understanding of true respectful authority more along the lines of heaven rather than the sort of authority based on deserving, keeping scores and paybacks. This man was more mature in his understanding than the so-called elders of the Jews and was more humble than how they had represented him to be. Interestingly this was in spite of the fact that he was a soldier invested with considerable authority in the organizational structrue of a pagan occupying army. Yet he had chosen to live very differently in relation to the people he had been sent to control and had treated them with unusual kindness and generosity instead of the typical severity, violence and intimidation. He understood the superior power of respect and humility, principles foundational to God's kingdom. This was in surprising contrast to the Jews who claimed to be God's representatives. Because of this he felt no need to impose his personal presence to influence his request to Jesus, for he believed that Jesus would not be too impressed by the accouterments of power defining his position in the army as He would by respect and trust.
This man understood the language and power of trust – what Jesus called faith, whereas the highly religious Jews had come to view religion and God as relying more on intimidation, force and the methods of the counterfeit system that is based on rewards and punishments to maintain control over others. Ironically the very system of force and intimidation that Rome relied most on to control the world were the methods the Jews had come to believe God uses, while the methods this Roman soldier had come to use were along the line of those principles Jesus had come to reveal as God's true methods that are based on love, trust and freedom.
For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, 'Go,' and he goes, and to another, 'Come,' and he comes, and to my slave, 'Do this,' and the slave does it."
This man wanted to immediately correct the distortion of his motives by the Jewish elders to inform Jesus of his true motives and his preferred ways of relating to people around him. He understood the dynamics of true authority as being far superior to the imposed authority system based on threats and force. As a result he could readily recognize others who operated within that same framework as well.
The problem many run into is when they read this verse from the perspective of authority that is imposed and enforced. They then assume that this story reinforces the notion that God imposes authority like a Roman hierarchy rather than relying on the principles of respect and freedom. What they fail to appreciate is that effective authority only works when it is freely given to one by those choosing to live under that person's authority. When this is not understood it becomes nearly impossible to understand the true lesson in this story and the contrast it provides between the two opposing systems.
Although this commander was embedded within a military system that relied on coercive methods of authority based on this world's counterfeit system of control, he had come to discover the superior principles of God's methods of authority that rely on trust and respect at all levels. Although he might not have been able to fully integrate these methods of true authority completely into his position designed by opposing methods, to the extent that he had leeway he had chosen to utilize methods of true authority and had found them to be far more effective. By cultivating trust through kindness, generosity and respect for everyone around him he had developed the kind of authority that heaven relies on to govern everyone who chooses freely to live under.
When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, "I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith."
Jesus had not come across this level of respect or understanding of true authority among His own people who had devolved their notions of authority into those based on selfish motives. This is the kind of authority inherent in debt systems. Jesus found it startling and even exciting that a man embedded so deeply in a system designed for force and intimidation had actually carved out a sphere of influence where he actively practiced principles opposite to those of this world's power structures. This man had come to appreciate and practice successfully principles of heaven without even growing up knowing God all that well. But possibly after being exposed to the teachings of the Torah and the Prophets from the people who had been entrusted with these truths, his keen mind had discerned the underlying principles that he embraced. This in contrast to those who failed to appreciate elevated concepts of truth even while having far greater access to Scriptures and a long history of God's leading in their past.
Jesus found in this man a spirit open and already embracing truths of God's kingdom. He found a pagan man with a better appreciation for truth than those claiming to have all the truth and viewed pagans as unworthy of God's interest. This man had left behind living in the system of debts and favors, earning and deserving to experiment successfully in the methods of heaven that rely on freedom, honor and humility to govern relationships and maintain harmony and order in society.
Jesus interestingly connects faith as having something to do with a proper relationship to authority. I have been exploring intently what true authority involves. What I am discovering is that real authority the way God exercises it is empowered by those choosing to live within it and is received by those in authority through the trust and permission given to them by those they are to serve. The way heaven defines authority is nearly opposite of false ideas about authority so prevalent today. True authority is not imposed or forced but rather is received from those choosing to live under its umbrella. This is why the key word in Jesus' later statement about His own vast authority is the word 'given.'
And Jesus came and said to them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me...." (Matthew 28:18)
Many will argue that this authority was handed down to Jesus by the Father after Jesus earned it through His death on the cross. But that distorts the whole truth of how God operates His universe and it contaminates the spirit of trust and freedom that He desires for all of His subjects. Even though God inherently has supreme authority by virtue of ownership through creation and redemption, He chooses to exercise another kind of authority – that which is freely offered to Him by subjects who, from a genuine appreciation of His character, choose to submit to Him rather than He imposing His will over others, violating their will to choose their own course. This maintains the principle of respect for the freedom of all while allowing the natural principles of cause and effect to produce the consequences of each one's choices. In this way God maintains the integrity of His underlying principles to sort out the final results of compliance or disobedience rather than imposing artificial rewards and punishments.
Now back to the story. The Jewish leaders may have felt exposed by the correction from the centurion's trusted friends as well as the affirmation by Jesus about the superior faith of this pagan. Their choice to change the centurion's words to reflect their own perceptions was suddenly seen to be shallow, manipulative, self-serving and selfish rather than respectful of the trust in them by the centurion. This could have been an opportunity for them to see their own faulty thinking if they would be humble enough to accept this revelation, but we are left wondering whether they learned anything from this experience or not.
When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health. (Luke 7:2-10)
The happy ending of this little story for the centurion is that his faith was honored. It can be tempting to use the word 'rewarded' instead of 'honored' in that sentence, but that would undermine the purpose of this story. The notion of rewards is so linked in our thinking with false ideas about authority and how God's kingdom functions that it can be more misleading than helpful. Jesus honored his faith by affirming it as genuine; He did not reward the centurion by paying him back for a payment of faith in Him like the Jews assumed things were supposed to work.
Likewise we are not to assume we must use some sort of currency to gain heaven's favors or benefits or earn its rewards. The entire system of economic logic has saturated us with faulty assumptions, some that are evident in this story in the logic of the Jews who embraced that system of debt and payback. Because of such thinking they feared that without that approach the centurion might not get what he deserved. But Christ's gifts are just that – gifts, not received by earning them but simply as friends sharing good things with each other without thought of obligation or repayment.
Today we too are in desperate need of divorcing ourselves from the debt and deserving mentality just as much as the Jews were in Christ's day. This economic exchange mentality has so permeated our thinking and religion that we find it very difficult to grasp the nature of how things work in the kingdom of heaven. God's kingdom needs not rely on the false premises of earthly counterfeit systems we call civilization – economics, imposed law and hierarchy. These are distortions of the great deceiver. God's system is very unlike the ways of this world molded by Satan's kingdom of selfishness.
After spending considerable time contemplating, communing with God and writing down my thoughts about issues of authority, I am coming to see more clearly fundamental differences between typical concepts of authority and how it is contrasted with heaven's kind and use of authority. True authority after all, must fully harmonize with all the other principles of heaven such as respect for individual freedom, the need for transparency and vulnerability, implicit trust and unconditional, passionate love. All of these elements define the atmosphere of heaven and are necessary prerequisites for ensuring the security of everyone's peace and happiness throughout all eternity.
What I am coming to see more clearly is that if I want to live under God's authority and enjoy all the benefits inherent in that relationship, I must choose to willingly submit to Him my own authority daily and then follow through by cooperating with His instructions as He exercises the authority I have given Him.
The same applies to my relationship with any other legitimate authority God may designate in my life. This means that I can only live in healthy relationship to any authority only if I first make God the supreme authority in my life at all times, the only One I really submit to. When He is the One I serve and He alone, then out of obedience to that single allegiance I will comply with His desires for relating to any other sub-authorities He may designate for organizing His work and coordinating the working out of His plans. As I use my freedom to live in healthy relationship to authority, not allowing the infection of fear to become my motive but always keeping myself in the love of God, He preserves my freedom rather than removing it from me. In this way I can enjoy the abundant life that comes from living in harmony with the principles of reality as God designed for me and for everyone to enjoy.
How am I to relate to false claims of authority over my life? That is another related topic but one I will not address here.