Sensing Jesus' authority

January 26, 2009

We preach these stories so often that sometimes it's the unexpected that
keeps us going. It's especially apt when some new nuance blazes up into
our awareness during the season of Epiphany.

I was delighted to
find something I'd never noticed before in today's gospel. The synagogue
goers in Capernaum express amazement after Jesus silences the unclean
spirit: "What is this? A new teaching—with authority!" But these folks
were already amazed before the miracle, because Jesus taught them in a
way that demonstrated his authority. The exorcism proves his authority, proves that he is not like the scribes who teach through case law and precedent.

It's as if the people in the synagogue sense Jesus' authority before they see
it—and this applies even to the demons, who acknowledge his power
before they experience it. This is a theme throughout Mark: the world
and everything in it is possessed of a kind of spiritual intuition
related to Jesus and his ministry, one that leads to or proceeds from
amazement.

Whether the demons or the people correctly construe
Jesus' power or interpret his intent is another matter, a relevant one
throughout Mark. Still, the readiness of some to hear and obey (to
follow, to bring their loved ones to Jesus, to intercede for their
suffering neighbors) and the resistance and retrenchment of others
(demons, swineherds, religious leaders) indicate a sense of who Jesus is
prior to actual experience. This intuition seems to shape the moment of
encounter and its consequence.

The synagogue goers' familiar
benediction is also striking because Jesus doesn't really offer any new
teaching in this passage. We know from Luke 4—and from earlier in
Mark—that Jesus is teaching and preaching the kingdom of God, and that
his emphasis is different from John's: while the baptizer preaches
repentance to prepare for the coming kingdom, Jesus preaches the kingdom
come as the occasion for and source of repentance. But the Old
Testament writers also envisioned God's reign as a promised reality.

It
is Jesus' authority that makes the teaching seem new. Authority is not
the same thing as power. In the New Testament, power has an almost
universally negative connotation, and it can be conferred, grasped or
wielded because it remains external.

Authority, on the other
hand, is internal—or, given that the Greek word for authority means "out
of (one's) essence"—essential. Whatever Jesus does is a demonstration,
not of external power, but of his inner life and essence. Then and now,
many religious authorities trade mostly in the external power granted by
position, and are eager to maintain that power. But Jesus trades in
authority, which he is willing to relinquish for the sake of others.

Where
did this guy with the unclean spirit come from, anyway? It amazes me
that he was in the synagogue. Or maybe it doesn't—there are probably
lots of synagogue goers and churchgoers possessed of unclean spirits.
Most of these spirits are mostly benign and quiet until a spiritual
authority comes. Then they are flushed, like a covey of quail.

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