Jan 31, 2015

4th Sunday: "A new teaching with authority"

Dt 18: 15-20
1 Cor 7: 32-35
Mk 1: 21 - 28

When someone claims to have a certain position of authority we naturally want to know, who gave them this power? What training have they had, what school did they attend, what other positions have they held that led them to this new role of responsibility? We see a diploma hung on a wall or hear of awards bestowed and lucrative offers from companies that advance people to various higher positions which provide a certain authority upon them.

Our Gospel this Sunday speaks of two things: authority and power.  According to the Gospel of Mark which we hear from this year, Jesus begins his public ministry after calling his first disciples as we heard last week from fishermen to fish for people.

He begins to teach to those assembled for worship on the Sabbath day in the synagogue in Capernaum by the Sea of Galilee. Right off, we sense that his teaching is somehow different from what the crowd is accustomed to hear from other rabbis, who could only claim the authority of those they read: “As the prophet Isaiah states . . .”

Those who hear Jesus are stunned and puzzled by his words and most likely his tone of voice. Mark tells us “the people were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes.” He read the scriptures and explained them in a way that made them apply to himself (Lk 4: 20-24).

The amazement of the crowd, then, seems based on not only a certain confidence in Jesus’ voice and certain claims he made but they were also aware of his background.  They knew where he came from – an obscure tiny village that many assumed would never produce a citizen of great learning or significance.  They knew that his social status was that of a common tradesman, as that of his presumed father, Joseph. All that considered, who does he think he is and from where does he claim this sudden position of power? How can he make the claims he does?

In the midst of what must have been a lively discussion of Jesus’ imposing claims, suddenly a man shrieks out: “What have you to do with us Jesus of Nazareth?”  

Now apparently such incidences were not all that unusual in Jesus’ time.  There were likely a number of folks, mentally disturbed, who would yell many things out loud in public places for no apparent reason.  Our knowledge of mental illness today in its variety of forms was unheard of in ancient times so such folks were sadly assumed to be possessed by evil demons.  The existence of both good and evil spirits was very common in ancient times and certainly something we need to revisit in our own. Angels and demons are very active in our own day and age.

Yet, there was something unique about this man’s disturbance. His shout was not just spoken haphazardly; it was directly aimed at Jesus himself. It seemed directed at Jesus for a purpose and Our Lord responds with an even greater authority which seems to support the origin of the authority the crowd noticed he taught with. 

Without fear or cowardice Jesus directly commands the spirit in the disturbed man: “Quiet! Come out of him!” His voice must have been strong, direct, and firm. And so the unclean spirit, who identified the truth of Jesus authority that the crowd was about to experience, comes out of the man. 

If the crowd was not astonished before this moment they certainly are now: “What is this? A new teaching with authority. He commands . . . they obey him.”  

It is interesting to hear it was the demon in the man who revealed Jesus’ identity: “I know who you are - the Holy One of God.” Jesus claim for his authoritative teaching and its exercise in the miracle events is of divine origin.  He has a power greater than ordinary human beings and certainly greater than any of their familiar rabbis.  The most authority those more common teachers could claim was to quote the authority of the prophets themselves, from whom they read. But Jesus claim is of his own power and position as God.

We may stop there.  We may feel this authority of Jesus was essential to establish within his own time and place.  He needed to do so in order to carry out his mission and its purpose for our eternal salvation.  Yet, unlike many appointed or elected leaders who are in power one day and out the next, Jesus’ authority has been passed on – to his Church and to us. 

There is no doubt this experience in the synagogue at Capernaum along the Sea opened the door to many who would discover and benefit from Jesus presence in their midst.  After all, Mark ends his passage with the words: “His fame spread everywhere . . .”

Yet, as the first reading from the ancient book of Deuteronomy tell us God had intended to send a prophet like Moses, only greater, among his people and “you shall listen to him and . .. I will put my words in his mouth.” This prophet we see in Jesus who in the line of prophets became the very voice of God himself rather than speak only on behalf of God. 

Where that leaves us is to know that Jesus’ authority moved forward from his time to ours.  That all connected with the spread of the Gospel, and who kept its message authentic, can be heard with confidence.  In the Church we hear that voice.  Not because it is led by fallible human beings in need of our own personal conversion but because that Gospel message of Christ continues and we can follow with confidence because it is from Jesus own authoritative voice. 

So God’s Word can be followed.  His sacraments can be received in the confidence of knowing that they are born of his authority where he washes us clean of sin, forgives and reconciles us to God, feeds us with his own body and blood, unites us in marriage and calls us to ordained service and anoints us with healing in sickness. 

The power of the Church should be no more or no less than the power and authority that Christ has entrusted to his Body, the Church.  To reach out with compassion and mercy, to include rather than exclude, to challenge and teach the truth is both done with the authority of Christ and it extends to his Church which is his Body and face in the world. 

Of this we can be sure and confidently follow the Way he has shown us.   

You gave us the same Word made flesh as Mediator,
and he has spoken your words to us
and called us to follow him.
He is the way that leads us to you,
the truth that sets us free,
the life that fills us with gladness.

(From the Preface of Eucharistic Prayer III in Masses
for Various Needs)