Wednesday, January 24, 2018
On Sunday, in Mark 1:21-28, Jesus will enter the synagogue at Capernaum and teach with authority. Mark goes out of his way to tell us that the scribes--the usual religious interpreters--didn't have the sort of authority that Jesus had. And, by the end of the reading, we will see this authority manifest in action, too, as Jesus commands an unclean spirit to come out of a man right there in the synagogue. It seems that authority is important to Mark and Mark's telling of the good news of Jesus, but what does he mean by authority?
The Greek word that is translated for us as "authority" is "ἐξουσίαν." It also means power in the sense of "power to act." When I first read this lesson, thinking about the upcoming Vestry Retreat, it felt like Jesus was letting his internal superhero show, flexing his divine muscles, and acting with the sort of strength that no one else on earth could act. But a study of the word "ἐξουσία" suggests that power in the aggressive, impressive, overpowering sense may not be appropriate here.
The word "ἐξουσία" is a feminine Greek word that comes from the word "ἔξεστιν," which means "to be permitted." In other words, Jesus' words and actions, rather than being supernatural expressions of might, are authentic expressions of that which he has been permitted to do. He has been granted the authority--the permission--to speak and act on God's behalf. The real marvel, therefore, is not merely that he was doing something no one else could do but doing something that the people have long supposed that no one else was allowed to do.
Mark tells us that "[the people in the synagogue] were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes." Perhaps at that moment it felt like God had given this young rabbi the gift of authentic preaching--the sort of preaching and teaching that commands our attention. Later on, after Jesus cast the demon out of the man, the crowd wonders, "What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him." This act of exorcism was confirmation that his teaching was divinely permitted. (Maybe that's the link with the Deuteronomy passage we have this Sunday.) On Sunday, we begin by observing the authority given to Jesus, but, in order to be faithful to these readings, we must end by asking whether we, the Body of Christ, are exhibiting the same authority in our actions that we claim in our words.
We call ourselves followers of Jesus. We proclaim that we have good news for the world. We describe ourselves as the forgiven, redeemed people of God. We assume a particular moral authority. But are we demonstrating with our actions that we have been given the authority to say those things? There's another school shooting in the news today. Of course, this Sunday's readings are about more than gun violence, but I wonder whether those who decry such horrible acts as "evil" and "ungodly," including me, are acting with the same authority to end them.