This past Sunday the Gospel reading dealt with the conferring of authority. Specifically, the officials wanted to see Jesus’ permit for teaching his radical blend of Judaism. Where did you get the stamp of approval to teach?
Obviously we can shake our heads in dismay at the short-sightedness of the authorities. Do they know whom they are talking to? Who gives authority to anything?
It is not a trivial question. In the professional world, the question of accreditation is important. Luckily for me, in the IT field where I tend to hovver, it is much more of a meritocracy than a certificate-conscious environment. People want proof of what you have done, rather than where you learned. In fact, a question for those who are thinking of entering the field is "What do you do right now which shows your interest in this field?" For example, someone who is wanting a job as a web designer better have designed some websites just for fun. Someone who wants to work with databases, better have created some small ones at home to organize their DVD collection. Having such examples shows much more than saying you took a class somewhere.
Still, being able to show you have continued your training in officially sanctioned schools is very useful. Mostly as a shortcut to all the questions. You show up with a certificate from Microsoft I am going to be able to assume, fairly or not, that you know the specifics of that product. Maybe you do not have in-the-trenches knowledge, but you should know something.
To my ears the Pharisees seem to be asking important questions. They are responsible for teaching the people, and no matter what kind of lousy job they were doing, it shows a least a modicum of professionalism to go and inquire of this new teacher in town whether or not he belonged to the union.
Of course, Jesus blows by their requirements by asking of them whether they even had the proper credentials to be entitled or competetent to judge His credentials! What a shift.
John, the Baptiser, did not ask permission of the authorities. Obviously, they thought he was a dangerous non-credentialled operator. But they were politically savvy enough to not go and cause trouble with their constituents. John helped them by staying out in the fringes, and by his extra-imprecatory preaching he probably guaranteed himself a smaller devoted following. Even though many came out to hear him, most, probably, went back shaking their heads and agreeing with the authorities.
Jesus, on the other hand, took the game to them, as it were, and forced their hand. What would they do about it?
The best defense for any institution is to require an institutionally-approved certification to do what you do. This is the simplest way to control. If you can add some actual legitimacy to your certification by, for example, requiring expensive and challenging ordination rites for the priesthood, even better! There are countless ways in which an institution can guarantee their survival even in the midst of a challenge. They could, for example, demand that any "official" discussion be held at their offices, or their arena. A good example is Washington DC. Anyone is welcome to challenge the status quo, and democracy even systematizes the process. This is wonderful. But for you to legitimately wield political power you will need to go and engage the very power you are trying to topple – and thus, perversely and paradoxically, you give it even more power.
In the 90s Microsoft was in deep trouble over its business practices. But the main failure of Microsoft was that they had always completely eschewed lobbying. The powers-that-be found a great way to remind them of that. Microsoft, being no dummy, learned its lesson: moved its government affairs office into the downtown DC, hired more lawyers and the best-connected lobbyists and spent US$5 million in lobbying. The result, as transparent as it is: Microsoft is no longer Public Enemy No. 1.
There is simply no way anyone can influence an institution outside of an institution without a revolution. I know, I know, this sounds like Dylan song. Well it is! Or should be.
It is also profoundly, and sadly, true.