LECTIONARY REFLECTION | Psalm 119:97-104
In 1983 a shaggy haired rock ’n roller John Cougar Mellencamp released a new ditty called “The Authority Song.” The song captures the rebellious spirit of a teenager railing against authority figures who, in his mind, love putting people in their place and sucking all the fun out of life. Despite repeated attempts to defy “the law,” the rebel keeps singing the chorus over and over with a devious grin:
I fight authority, authority always wins
Well, I fight authority, authority always wins
Well, I been doing it, since I was a young kid
I’ve come out grinnin’
Well, I fight authority, authority always wins
Christians in America, in particular, have an interesting and sometimes paradoxical relationship with “authority” and “the law.” On the one hand, our values are so shaped by our nation’s foundational story of independence — a national rebellion throwing off the yoke of monarchical authority — and we relish in the individual’s pursuit of freedom from oppressive regimes and external constraints. We love when the little guy sticks it to The Man. We love when those pesky Duke brothers of Hazard County run roughshod over Boss Hog and Sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane.
Much popular gospel preaching since the Reformation has reinforced this antinomian and anti-authoritarian spirit by portraying “the Law” and legalistic Pharisees as the dark villain that Grace, the hero in the white hat, sets us free from. And twenty-first century society, in general, is understandably suspicious of authoritarian figures, governments and institutions after a twentieth-century that brought us Hitler and Marx, or David Koresh and other cults, and now more recently the sexual abuse scandals in the Catholic Church and moral failures of megachurch pastors, and the #MeToo and #Black Lives Matter movements that shine light on the alleged abuse of power by authority figures.
This makes it difficult for Christians to reconcile the fact that our sacred Scriptures and the heart of our gospel message is the summons to whole-hearted loyalty to the Monarch-of-monarchs and to bring one’s personal conduct, beliefs and pursuits under the authority of God’s Word and Jesus’ Kingdom ethics. For thousands of years society has generally agreed that eventually libido-driven adolescents need to grow up and learn to resist their baser instincts. John Mellencamp’s song let’s the preacher be the bearer of this unpopular message in the second verse:
I call up my preacher, I say, “Gimme strength for Round 5.”
He said “You don’t need no strength, you need to grow up, son.”
I said “Growing up leads to growing old and then to dying,
And dying to me don’t sound like all that much fun.”
The rebel has no interest in bowing to any authority and would rather “burn out” in unfettered freedom and wild exploits than “rust out” living a domesticated existence under someone else’s law. The folly in this perspective is viewing all authorities as inherently corrupt and all laws as inherently freedom-constricting and intended to limit fun. (I will leave aside for now the fact that maximizing fun should not be one’s highest aim in life, though this is another folly of our current cultural moment.)
On the contrary, if human flourishing is to prevail, we need to replace corrupt authority with healthy authority, bad laws with good laws, and dethrone the tyrants of our own distorted desires and submit ourselves to the restorative reign of King of Kings who has come to bring “life to the fullest” (Jn 10:10) — if we’ll submit to His Will and Ways.
Let us be honest: our world is a mess these days and things are going to get a lot darker before many people will consider the Light of an ancient faith as the antidote to the growing chaos. I write for “those who have ears to hear” the Wisdom of the ages that reminds us that history is merely repeating itself again and again. In another epoch of time, in the years before God gave His covenant people a human king, chaos reigned in the land. Why?
“In those days Israel had no king; all the people did whatever seemed right in their own eyes” (Judges 21:25).
The principle is simple: If you make human hearts—distorted by sin and prone toward destructive and self-destructive patterns—the highest authority, that society will eventually implode. The Sacred Scriptures of the Judeo-Christian tradition celebrate the Divine Law—first with Moses and the prophets, and later Jesus and the Apostles—as a gift to be cherished and honored. This is the spirit of the Psalmist in this week’s lectionary who does not fight authority, but has gladly let it win over his heart and have reign over his life:
“Oh, how I love your law! It is my meditation all day long. Your commandment makes me wiser than my enemies, for it is always with me. I have more understanding than all my teachers, for your decrees are my meditation. I understand more than the aged, for I keep your precepts. I hold back my feet from every evil way, in order to keep your word. I do not turn away from your ordinances, for you have taught me. How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth! Through your precepts I get understanding; therefore I hate every false way” (Psalm 119:97-104).
We recognize our own propensity to wander, and relish the fact that God has not left us adrift on the sea of our own personal opinions and decisions.
In my church office I have what may seem to be a strange and less than inspiring piece of artwork on my wall. Inspired by Edward Hopper’s famous “Nighthawks” painting, Gottfried Helnwein’s “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” has superimposed depictions of Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, James Dean and Humphrey Bogart sitting around a lonely bar. My interpretation is that this scene shows four people who largely pursued and achieved what “the world” sees as The Good Life—fame and fortune, money, sex and power. James Dean is the quintessential portrait of the “Rebel Without a Cause” who played the teenage rebel in the 1955 movie by that name.
On the screen and in their own personal lives, these four people painted outside the lines, fought authority, defied societal norms, followed their hearts and lived life on their own terms. Tragically, each of them “burned out” young and most would agree, that despite appearances, they were all tortured souls whose rebellious ways and “free spirits” revealed an emptiness within. They were free from external constraints but shackled by inner demons and personal addiction. Their bright and shining stardom on Hollywood Boulevard led them eventually to a dark and lonely corner on the Boulevard of Broken Dreams.
Under the painting in my office are the words of Jesus, “Broad is the boulevard that leads to broken dreams, and many are on it. But small and narrow is the boulevard that leads to the truly Good Life, and only a few are finding it” (Matt 7:13-14 my paraphrase).
We do not long for the day when every individual will be free to do what seems right in their own eyes; for we know that this would not result in freedom but all kinds of inner-bondage—addiction, greed, exploitation, etc. We long for the day when every soul will freely choose to confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, when every knee will happily bow down before His throne of grace and receive his gentle, restorative, and life-enhancing reign in their heart and home.
As a pastor in this cultural moment where biblical illiteracy is on the rise and once again everyone is doing what seems pleasing in their own eyes, I am convinced the church needs to follow the Psalmist’s example and redouble our efforts at teaching people to love God’s Law and to meditate on the teachings of Jesus day and night.
The boulevard to the Kingdom Dream leads not to a lonely bar where disillusioned souls drink their sorrows away, but to the fountain of living water where satisfied souls discover and exclaim, “How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!”
Amen. Amen. Let it be so.
PS: Enjoy the king of four-chord rock songs!