True Authority -- Lectionary Reflection for Epiphany 4B
Mark 1:21-28 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
21 They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22 They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23 Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24 and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” 25 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” 26 And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27 They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He[a] commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” 28 At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.
Fred Craddock titled one of his books on preaching As One Without Authority. It is a book that explores inductive preaching, a form of preaching that invites the hearer to enter into the story – both biblical and contemporary. In inductive preaching, the preacher doesn't offer a thesis, offer proofs, or ask for a decision. Whatever authority the preacher has is more indirect than direct. Inductive preaching has become popular in recent years in part because preachers have discovered that we can no longer expect our “audience” to simply accept what we have to say at face value. That is because we are ones without authority.
Of course, preachers have always faced the problem of authority. That is why we like to quote others from Barth to Craddock. The scholastic method of doing theology that dominated the medieval western Catholic Church assumed this to be true. You lay out your proposition, then array the authorities pro and con, and formulate a conclusion based on those authorities.
The same was true of the rabbis of Jesus’ day. The rabbis would quote the experts so as to bolster their argument. Jesus, it would seem, did not follow this pattern. He didn’t quote Barth and Calvin, Wesley, or Pope Francis. He simply taught the people from the scriptures, and the people were astounded by what they heard. He upset the apple cart, overturning, it would seem, their understandings of the things of God.
In this particular story, Jesus goes down to Capernaum, on the Sea of Galilee. Since it’s the Sabbath he goes in with his disciples to share in the synagogue service. It would appear that Jesus didn’t just sit down and listen to the local preacher. Instead, he seems to have gone right up to the pulpit and began teaching. How often did he do such a thing? Surely the synagogue leaders weren’t happy about this interloper coming in and pushing the normal preacher aside. I know, I’m reading some of this into the story, but Mark is so sparse with details it begs for some creative interaction.
So, what do we make of this event? We don’t know what Jesus said. Mark doesn’t record his message. It probably doesn’t matter, because that’s not the point. Instead, it would seem that the point here is that Jesus got up to talk and the people were amazed by what he said.
In our churches, it’s unlikely that a stranger would be allowed to simply walk into the church, enter the pulpit, and begin teaching. It’s quite likely that the police would be called. There are protocols and rules to be followed. There is the issue of credentials. I am an ordained minister, with the requisite theological degrees and training in homiletics. In my tradition, we affirm the priesthood of believers and historically have given less credence to credentials, but credentials are still important. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be discerning about who enters the pulpit. There is a lot of bad theology out there. I’m not saying it is necessarily “heretical,” I’m just saying it has dangerous consequences. So, churches are right to be careful about who gets to teach and preach. We might not be comfortable with Jesus getting up and preaching – especially if we didn’t have a sense of who he was (or is) beforehand. Sure, if I know Jesus is coming to visit, I’d be glad to let him take the pulpit. I’m all for pulpit guests – but as for uninvited ones, I’m not so sure about them! Nevertheless, when he started preaching, people recognized that he “taught with authority.”
There is another surprising element in this story. As Jesus is teaching a man interrupts him. While the synagogue goers are dumbfounded by Jesus’ teaching, this man, whom Mark tells us has an “unclean Spirit,” seems to know exactly who Jesus is. He cries out at Jesus – I know who you are, you’re the holy one of God. The clean folks don’t know who Jesus is, but the unclean man does. Why is this? In fact, why does a man who shouldn’t even be in the synagogue recognize Jesus for who he is? The man himself, being unclean, shouldn’t be in a sacred space. William Placher provides us some context for the man. He writes that “like the children or mentally people we often try to keep out of church, he promptly disrupts by yelling his head off.” Isn’t that the way it often is – the ones who disrupt get it and we don’t. Placher goes to say that “Evil spirits never have any problem knowing who Jesus is; ‘the demons believe—and shudder” (Jas. 2:19)” (Mark (Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible),pp. 37-38). The spirit within the man knows Jesus’ purpose—to overcome the evil that convulses human experience. Perhaps the spirit believes by naming Jesus for who he is, the spirit has control.
Jesus answers by telling the spirit to be silent. It’s not that Jesus was upset that his sermon was being interrupted. We all have to deal with that once in a while. We just pause and wait for things to calm down. But Jesus takes immediate action. He tells the spirit to be silent. Remember that in Mark Jesus is seeking to keep his identity quiet. It’s a need to know basis. This synagogue crowd didn’t need to know, quite yet. Timing is everything. At this, the spirit releases the man and the people are once again amazed. They wonder – who is he? What is this new teaching? Despite Jesus’ best efforts to keep things silent, the word goes out across the land. It will amaze some and frighten others.
This takes us back to the question of authority. We live in an age that questions most forms of authority. Many are jaded and others simply skeptical. Governments come and go and seem to focus more on keeping power than touching lives. People have lost faith in the institutional church. Too many scandals have rocked it. Survival mode has taken hold. We wonder what the future holds. We who are clergy can get nervous about job security and pensions. Yes, we (and our families) are just like everybody else. We get nervous when new voices start to speak – whether it is Jesus or the unclean spirit. We want to build fortresses. We want to draw lines. But Jesus comes and tears down the walls and erases the lines. So, where do we stand? Are we ready to follow this teacher on a journey that in Mark leads to a cross? And are we willing to take this journey, knowing that none of us has any true authority? Any authority that is present comes from the one who leads us. And the word will spread!
Gottlieb, Maurycy, 1856-1879. Christ Preaching at Capernaum, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56399 [retrieved January 14, 2021]. Original source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Maurycy_Gottlieb_-_Christ_preaching_at_Capernaum_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg.