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A little brief authority

He (Jesus of Nazareth AD 30, Jerusalem) entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold, saying to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be a house of prayer,’ but you have made it a den of robbers.” He was teaching daily in the temple. The temple chiefs (Greek archiereis - “arch” meaning “top of”) and the lawyers (Greek grammateus – to be distinguished from the illiterate majority) and the principal men (Greek protoi – male plural of “best”) of the people were seeking to destroy him, but they did not find anything they could do, for all the people were hanging on his words.  Luke 19: 45-48
Interesting, isn’t it, that Luke in bold above so clearly described those in Jerusalem who “were seeking to destroy” Jesus. They were men with “a little brief authority”. Is there anything significant in that?

The phrase “a little brief authority” is Shakespearean. In his Measure for Measure the words spring from the lips of Isabella and are addressed to Angello. Angello has been promoted to the role of Lord Deputy of Vienna whilst the Duke is away. Angello is an exceedingly upright man. But....

One of his first acts when in authority is to order the execution of a young man, Claudio, whose sole crime has been to get his fiancée pregnant before marriage. Claudio has a sister, Isabella. Isabella is about to become a nun. When she hears of the arrest and imprisonment of her brother, Claudio, she seeks an audience with Angello – but Angello is immovable. 


‘The greater the power the more dangerous the abuse.’ (Edmund Burke, Irish statesman and philosopher, 1729-1797)
Isabella says: It is excellent to have a lion’s strength, but it is tyrannous to use it like a giant. She has seen what others haven’t: Angello is not only lion-like but, being invested with power, he has become a giant as well. Authority?

Isabella goes on. Merciful heaven! Thou (i.e. God’s heavenly mercy) rather with thy sharp and sulphurous bolt splittest the unwedgeable (not able to be split with a wedge) and gnarled oak than the soft myrtle. She sees that it is in fact the mercy of God – God’s desire to forgive - and not God’s just judgment – that changes the hardest of hearts.

Isabella continues. But man, proud man, dressed in a little brief authority, most ignorant of what he’s most assured, his glassy essence, like an angry ape, plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven as make the angels weep. She has rightly observed that men are proud, that when they are given “a little brief authority” they become like angry apes, convinced of their rightness despite their actual ignorance. The angels weep – Angelo is proud.

Shakespeare coined another interesting phrase about men – about men in authority in particular: his glassy essence.  Experts believe Shakespeare is here putting forward the view that the essence of man is like a glass lens which man uses to examine others. When that lens – that glassy essence – examines itself, however, it sees nothing – it looks through itself being like glass.

Authority? A little brief authority?

Has this anything to do with what happens when you put a man in uniform?

The media is full of reports about men in authority doing wrong or acting with callousness towards others. Robert Maxwell. Senior clergymen. Teachers. Where a little brief authority goes, there goes the angry ape who will even use his authority (as Angello sought to do with Isabella) to grant mercy only in exchange for sexual favours.


‘Only those who do not desire power are fit to hold it.’ (Plato, philosopher, BC 428-348)
How very different was the Jesus of the Gospels from the Jerusalem authorities in AD 30. He renounced all authority – he who was Lord of all. He submitted to “a little brief authority” in others and willingly suffered the death of the shameful cross. 

Why? So that he would be able to show “heaven’s mercy” to those who would seek it – mercy for every deed, every crime, every failure, every sin. Mercy for all who turn to him. 

So pleasing was this to “heaven” that he arose from the dead.

What about me? I have a little brief authority – over my own life. Shall I use that authority, as others did and do, to destroy him?

Sinner Syvret

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