tMichaelB is the web site for Tom Bengtson, who writes about business, religion, family and politics.

Monday, February 07, 2005

I am like the Ethiopian

I found myself in the Bible. I don't simply mean I was reading the Bible; I mean I actually found a character who could be me -- the Ethiopian in the eighth chapter of the Book of Acts.

There's a story between versus 26-40 about an Ethiopian court official riding home in a chariot. He's reading scripture as he travels. The Apostle Philip sees him and asks: "Do you understand what you are reading?" The man responds: "How can I, unless someone instructs me?" The Ethiopian invites Philip to join him in his chariot. Having been filled with the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, Philip is able to teach him the meaning of the scriptures.

For years, I read the Bible and really had trouble understanding it. I would start at Genesis and work my way forward, like I would any book. By the time I got a few pages into Leviticus, I had completely lost the story. I would get frustrated and stop. Other sections I read seemed cryptic: What is the meaning of the various miracles? Was Jesus really God? Why did Jesus need to die for us in the first place? My questions were endless and I was never really sure I could find any answers in my Bible.

Like the Ethiopian, I knew I needed a teacher. But who? Lot's of people claim to know what the scriptures are saying. Whom should I trust? Galatians 1:7-9 tells me there are people claiming to preach the word of God who have it all wrong. "But there are some who are disturbing you and wish to pervert the gospel of Christ... If anyone preaches to you a gospel other than the one that you received, let that one be accursed!" My problem is, I am not sure that I would be able to detect who was preaching the gospel that we have received, and who is preaching a gospel they have made up.

I found a story in the Book of Numbers to be useful. The Book of Numbers describes the Israelites after they have escaped out of Egypt and are wondering in the desert. Moses is their leader. In chapter 16, three men question the leadership of Moses. They gather 250 of their buddies -- "men of note" my New American Bible says. These were all faith-filled men and they believed that God spoke to all of them, just as much as God spoke to Moses. They ask Moses: "All of them are holy; the Lord is in their midst. Why then should you set yourselves over the Lord's congregation?"

Although these men have a special place in the Israelite community as Levites, they have trouble accepting Moses as the leader. They want to be able to lead, just as Moses does. The story concludes with Moses confronting the 250. Moses says that if he was not sent by God to be their leader, then they will all live normal lives with normal deaths. But if God did send Moses as their leader, then the earth will open up and swallow them. At that very moment, the ground opens up and all the dissenters fall in to be consumed in fire.

That story is interesting to me because it tells me that in a large community of believers, not everyone is meant to be the leader. God does designate some to be leaders -- in this case it was Moses -- and some to listen and live what they have been taught.

Moses is God's teacher to the Israelites; he has an authority given to him by God that no one else has. And, we know that throughout history, the Israelites passed that teaching authority on from generation to generation. Jesus acknowledges that authority in Matthew 23. Verses 2 and 3 say: "The scribes and the Pharisees have taken their seat on the chair of Moses. Therefore do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you, but do not follow their example." So even though the Pharisees are not living a Godly life, Jesus tells His followers to do what the Pharisees say because they have the authority that originally was given to Moses.

Where is that authority today? Chapter 16 of Matthew describes Jesus giving His authority to Peter. Versus 18 and 19 say: "I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the Kingdom of heaven." Jesus transfers His authority from the seat of Moses to the seat of Peter so that after Jesus' death, Resurrection and Ascension, we would know from whom to learn.

This is reassuring to me. If I am looking for a teacher –- someone to help me understand scripture -- then it makes sense that I should look for someone who teaches under the authority of the seat of Peter. This is why I am so comfortable in the Catholic Church, where the Pope occupies the seat of Peter, and that authority is passed to the bishops; by rights, they can pass the responsibility of teaching onto priests and they, in turn, can designate certain lay folks as teachers if they choose.

I am affirmed in this understanding in the Old Testament Book of Malichi, where in Chapter 2 the author describes the role of the priest: "For the lips of the priest are to keep knowledge, and instruction is to be sought from his mouth, because he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts."

Reading Matthew, I found even more reassurance. In Chapter 13, Jesus offers parables. At verses 24-30, He tells the parable of the wheat and the weeds growing together. He tells the parable to everyone but in versus 36-43, He explains it only to the disciples. So if I were living at the time of Christ and was in the crowd that heard Jesus preach this parable, to whom would I turn for an explanation? Would I turn to the guy next to me, who also heard the parable? Or would I seek an explanation from a disciple -- a believer like me, but someone who has a special place in the Christian community?

As I have come to understand the importance of teaching authority, I have been able to grow deeper in my faith. Magisterium is the Latin word for "teacher," and we Catholics use that word to describe the leaders of our church.

Acknowledging any authority requires a certain measure of humility by those who don't hold that authority. Pride –- the original sin -- can make that difficult. But I have come to believe it is essential. Without a teacher who can speak with true authority, I am like the Ethiopian before he met Philip. But with such a teacher, I can live in the truth.

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