It seems that there is a certificate for everything these days, along with some official group to issue it and, most likely, take our money for the service. One can become a Certified Special Event Professional (CSEP), for instance, or hold a Certificate in Career Readiness. There are certificates for the mastery of various software programs, planning methodologies, and fitness routines. There are Certified Dog Psychologists and Certified Beer Judges. From one top tier university I found 31 certifications in leadership alone, from a Certification in Critical Thinking Leadership to one in Innovation Management.
Not all certifications and degrees are bad, of course, but their growth signals a crisis of legitimacy. What were once basic human skills, shared freely and developed in community, have become certificates that are given only after the consumption of some educational product. And our judgement of those who are competent no longer requires our discernment of clear outcomes (are they really any good at X) but rather a glance at the frames on a person’s office wall.
This increase in certifications also reflects a general dissolution of community coherence. In a settled and thickly bonded community no one needs some organization to tell you that Mary knows how to help new mothers through the difficulties of lactation. She is part of a community of women who have learned from one another how to live into the gifts of their bodies. Together they help one another, unembarrassed of their biology, and it becomes clear that Mary is especially good at troubleshooting issues that arise. But in a fragmented and unsettled world, how would a nursing mother know where to turn when she needs help? In a culture where health has become the domain of experts, Mary’s gifts can only be exercised if she is a Certified Lactation Consultant, awarded not for her clear abilities as judged by her local community, but by some abstracted professional organization.
Further, in a world of certifications a person might feel devoid of the proper knowledge to do the most basic tasks or fulfill the most immediate responsibilities. I remember talking to some friends who were glad to send their young child to a specific daycare because the center had a nutritionist on staff. These parents said they weren’t sure how to provide healthy food for their child and they trusted the daycare could do a better job. These parents both held advanced degrees and yet though they were certified authorities they had been disempowered in their basic human responsibilities and competencies. Such is the crisis of authority in which we find ourselves.
Though there was no proliferation of certifications in 1st Century Palestine, the Gospel of Mark presents us with a Jesus who is stepping into a similar crisis of legitimacy. There were a host of religious teachers who were presenting their varied solutions to the challenges of faithfulness. And yet for too many that work had become a matter of abstract debates, concerns with minutiae rather than an ongoing encounter with the living God. As Dallas Willard has written, when the holistic reality of the soul is left out, everything becomes technique. So it was with many of the debates in the synagogues of Israel.
Jesus, the Gospel of Mark will later tell us, had mercy on the people because they were like sheep without a shepherd. Those who were supposed to be the shepherds of Israel, the living caretakers of the convenient relationship with God, had become more focused on the dead concerns of their expertise rather than the husbandry of Israel’s life of faithfulness. So is that when Jesus takes up the scriptures in the synagogue in Capernaum he gains credibility not through certification, the stamp of approval by the reigning officialdom, but by the clear living reality of God’s presence made manifest in his word and body. His authority wasn’t from any set of letters by his name or certificate on his wall, but his evident power to effect the reality of God’s reign.
Jesus is here living into what had long been understood as the role of the prophet in Israel. The prophet was not to be someone bound to any lineage or program of training in the way that priests were. Instead, the prophet was someone chosen by God to communicate the ongoing work of God’s faithful relationship, the free and loving dynamic of God’s covenant.
Such a relationship is open to possibility. This is why the prophet is not like an astrologer or diviner whose concern is simply to tell the future. The prophet is the one who lives in communion and communication with God, looking at the future and imagining its possibilities as God sees them. To fail at such a vision and its reading of the world from God’s side, is to fail in prophecy.
While the scribes of the synagogue would have made no claims to be prophets, their failure to imagine the world from God’s view, to read the scriptures with a sensitivity to what God was doing, is the reason they lacked authority. Jesus’s work in turn was to draw Israel back into relationship with the living covenant and open it to God’s vision of the future. It is this power to name and demonstrate God’s will and work in the world that proves Jesus’ authority as a prophet. Jesus is able to act, casting out demons and healing the sick, because his life is joined not to a static faith captive to its canons, but rather the dynamic and living word of which he is the primary manifestation.
What is our call in response to these scriptures? In a world that has lost the ability to judge competence, we must renew the only basis of authority we can ultimately trust—an ongoing, deep life of listening relationship with the living God. Such a life is a whole one, marked by qualities of character that extend well beyond words. As my friend Claudio Oliver recently put it to me, we must not make Jesus public in the world, but we must make him manifest. That is what Jesus did in that synagogue on a Sabbath long ago. To do that work now, we won’t need any certificates hanging on our walls. All we need to do is to listen to the God who still speaks and make our lives an echo of that speaking, reflecting the life that God is creating, even now, in the world.
There was a woman my family came to know while I was in high school named Bon Nell. She lived in a doublewide trailer on the outskirts of Plummerville. Her accent was all Arkansas and she had a gruff manner about her that included frequent cursing, a habit reflecting her time in the Navy. In her home she had a sunny spot where the Bible was always open and notebook pages were filled with the lists of people she prayed for daily. I was lucky to make it on that list and for over twenty years she prayed for me until this past fall when she died at the age of 98.
Bon Nell had no degrees in scripture. She read no Greek and understood little Hebrew. I’m sure that there was much in her theology with which I would have disagreed. And yet, it was she who prayed day in and day out for me and for so many others. She read and re-read and studied the Bible, not as a fascinating subject, but as a living word that could exorcise darkness and bring God’s love into the world, a love she knew powerfully in her own life. Bon Nell had the kind of authority that comes from presence and authentic experience—presence to God that was made manifest in her life.
I don’t regret most of my learning, the degrees I’ve earned or the curriculums I’ve completed. Still, those things are trivia compared to the authentic experience of God’s love. And if there is any credential I would be glad to claim, any authority I’d hope to have, it is the kind that I’ve seen, not on office walls, but in the eyes of people like Bon Nell—an aliveness of soul, a love of Jesus, an expectant vision of what God will do next in the world. To have authority like that we must read the scriptures, pray daily, and live continuously in the presence of God’s love. In these things we will discover that we are enough and more than enough. As Bon Nell would always write in her annual birthday cards in bold lettering: God loves you. Knowing that love will give you all the power and authority you need to make Jesus manifest in this world that is so in need of his light. Amen.