Sermon: "Teaching with Authority"
St. Paul’s Episcopal – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
Deuteronomy 18.15-20; Psalm 111; 1 Corinthians 8.1-13; Mark 1.21-28
Last Sunday, we looked at two radically different responses to God’s call. We considered how Jonah, after attempting to flee God, finally prophesied against Nineveh yet held on to his own idols and resentment. Jonah was truly a reluctant prophet! In contrast, we saw how Andrew, Simon Peter, James, and John, in response to Jesus’ “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” left everything behind (boats, nets, their greatest catch, and family) to follow Jesus. If one is to follow Jesus, one must be willing to repent, to turn around, and leave one’s former life behind.
This week, our scriptures invite us to consider what it means to teach “as one having authority” (Mark 1.22; NRSV). In our reading from Deuteronomy, the book comprised of Moses’ farewell speeches delivered just prior to entering the Promised Land, God tells Moses: “I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command” (Deuteronomy 18.18-20; NRSV). In that the prophet’s words are from God, the prophet speaks with authority. Moses further warns, those who do not heed the words of the prophet will be held accountable, and those who speak in the names of other gods or who presume to speak in God’s name when not so commanded will die (Deuteronomy 18.19-20; NRSV). Following this warning, Moses says, “If a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord but the thing does not take place or prove true, it is a word that the Lord has not spoken. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously; do not be frightened by it” (Deuteronomy 18.22; NRSV).
We commonly think of prophets as prophesying coming events; the previous criterion pertaining to whether things come true reinforces this idea. But the central role of the prophet was to convey God’s word, God’s loving plea for the people to return to a right relationship with God and each other. The events prophesied would come true if the people refused to repent.
In today’s gospel we are told that Jesus (now accompanied by Andrew, Simon Peter, James, and John) went to Capernaum; when the sabbath came, Jesus entered the synagogue and taught. Mark tells us, “They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes” (Mark 1.22; NRSV). The audience recognized Jesus’ teaching possessed a different quality. I suspect Jesus’ message carried far more authenticity, for being one with the Father, he clearly knew whereof he spoke. Unlike the scribes, his teaching likely conveyed greater certainty. It is one thing to convey knowledge; it is another to convey knowledge grounded in deep experience. For example, consider the difference between taking a management course with a business professor who has never managed as opposed to taking the same course with a professor who has several years of managerial experience.
Those in the synagogue recognized a difference in Jesus’ teaching and it presented a problem. This is Jesus, the son of Joseph, the carpenter. By Middle Eastern culture and tradition, Jesus was supposed to be a carpenter. What right did he have to teach? Who gave him the authority to teach? Jesus’ teaching bordered on the scandalous!
Mark continues, “Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 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’” (1.23-24; NRSV). In Jesus’ time, the people believed in clean and unclean spirits. In this age of medical science, we would classify most, if not all, “unclean spirit” cases as mental illness. Yet Mark’s account testifies that the unclean spirit recognized Jesus as the Messiah. Continuing with Mark’s account, we read: “But Jesus rebuked him, saying, ‘Be silent, and come out of him!’ And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, ‘What is this? A new teaching – with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits and they obey him’” (Mark 1.25-27; NRSV). Mark further tells us that Jesus’ fame began to spread throughout Galilee. This may be an understatement! Word must have spread like a highly contagious virus.
This healing, this exorcism, heightened their questions about Jesus’ authority and from whence it came. Despite the fact the unclean spirit recognized Jesus as “the Holy One of God” and Jesus’ actions revealed his power and authority over unclean spirits, many still wondered. As John Pilch observes, “The people now have an answer to why Jesus teaches ‘with authority, and not as the scribes.’ Clearly, Jesus possesses powers stronger than those of ordinary human beings. … What troubles them is the source of his authority. Is it God? … Or is it the world of the other, lesser gods and spirits” (https://liturgy.slu.edu/4OrdB013121/theword_cultural.html )? Mark further addresses this question in chapter 3 where he relates that Jesus’ family, fearing he might be out of his mind, attempted to restrain him; that “the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, ‘He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons’” (Mark 3.20-22; NRSV).
As Christians, what are the implications of Jesus’ “teaching with authority” for us?
First, each of us must wrestle with the question Jesus addressed to his disciples, “Who do you say that I am” (Mark 8.29; NRSV). Who is Jesus for us? Are we willing to recognize Jesus’ authority, and Jesus’ claim upon our lives?
Second, before sending his disciples out two-by-two, Jesus “gave them authority over the unclean spirits” (Mark 6.7; NRSV). Mark further relates, “They went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them” (6.12-13; NRSV). As Jesus’ disciples, we too are given authority and commissioned to preach the gospel; we are given the power to do so through the Holy Spirit. We can only do these things as we are transformed through God’s love.
Speaking of God’s love, one might ask: What is the relationship between teaching with authority and love? We have noted those in the synagogue “were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes” (Mark 1.22; NRSV). We have also noted that this authority likely reflects a greater degree of authenticity and a profound level of experience. I submit that Jesus’ teaching with authority is also a reflection of his great love and compassion. The scribes taught first and foremost from a position of knowledge and love of the Torah; they were well schooled in the Torah. Jesus taught first and foremost out of great love and compassion for those he taught, not only from a position of knowledge. Students can sense when a teacher loves them as much, if not more than, one’s subject. As Paul reminds us, though we speak with the tongues of men and of angels, if we have not love we are no more than a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal (I Corinthians 13.1). Jesus spoke with a depth of love few had encountered. Is it any wonder they recognized he taught with authority?
Third, and this may make some of us rather uncomfortable, as Christians we are called to cast out unclean spirits. As Osvaldo Vena observes, unclean spirits “possess us as a community, as a nation, and as members of the human race. They are intent on destroying us, and we need to cast them out” (https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-after-epiphany-2/commentary-on-mark-121-28-5 ). We can only accomplish this through naming, or identifying, them and through prayer.
How do we identify and name unclean spirits? Their chief characteristic is the absence of love, of God’s spirit; an absence reflected by anything which degrades, dehumanizes, uses, or abuses God’s children. We can name the unclean spirits only if we are filled with God’s love.
Vena tells us the first unclean spirit, the really big one, is “Unbelief: losing one’s faith in God, in life as a sacred force, and in our fellow human beings. It is the feeling that nothing can be done to solve our problems” (Ibid.). Others follow from Unbelief: “homophobia, racism, sexism, classism, religious and ideological intolerance, violence at home and at school, poverty, militarism, terrorism, war, greed, extreme individualism, globalization, out-of-control capitalism, media-infused fear that leads to paranoia, and governmental manipulation of information” (Ibid.). Does any of this sound familiar? All are characterized by an absence of God’s love.
Vena’s words on prayer are also noteworthy: “Praying is not a pious resignation to God’s will, or an exercise that puts our minds at ease, but rather, using Ched Myers’ words, that “intensely personal struggle within each disciple, and among us collectively, to resist the despair and distractions that cause us to practice unbelief, to abandon or avoid the way of Jesus.” In other words, it is the struggle to believe that change can really happen. A better world is possible” (Ibid.). Life in Christian community enables us to pray together and to support each other in our prayers. We gain the power to love through prayer, and we need the power of love if we are to be effective. Absent love, we cannot teach or speak with authority.
Are we willing to confront the unclean spirits which would have dominion over our society? Are we willing to spend the necessary time in prayer required to do so? Are we willing to grow in God’s love such that we can teach with authority? A better world is possible, but we can attain it only if we are willing to speak out, to confront, in a spirit of love. May God’s mercy and grace so empower us.