by Br Julian McDonald cfc

The people were spellbound by Jesus’ teaching because he taught with authority, and not like the scribes…There appeared in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit that shrieked: “What do you want of us, Jesus of Nazareth? I know who you are. – the holy One of God!” Mark 1, 21-28

Today’s gospel reading is typical of Mark’s style – direct and to the point. There is no padding and no introduction. Jesus bowls up to the synagogue in Capernaum, marches straight inside, and begins teaching. We are not told if the people gathered inside were expecting him. Capernaum wasn’t his home town, and there is nothing to indicate that Jesus had been invited by the local rabbi. The congregation was probably pretty much like the congregations in our local parishes – they were regular attenders who had heard it all before and had turned up faithfully to hear it again. Mark gives no indication of the content of Jesus’ teaching. However, he makes it clear that what struck the people was not so much what they heard but the way in which they heard it. It was not a repetition of same old, same old, same old. Rather, we are told that they were astounded by the way Jesus taught – with authority. His teaching was nothing like that of the scribes, who were probably criticised for being pedestrian, boring and predictable. Could it have been that the synagogue congregations of Jesus’ day were much like those who gather every week in our parish churches – critical, judgemental, intolerant and dismissive, especially of bishops and scholars?

This is a difficult gospel-reading because it challenges us to delve into the distinction Mark makes between the way in which Jesus taught and the teaching method of the scribes. Scribes were experts in Jewish law, and taught through exploring case law and examining precedents created by legal decisions. Their knowledge came to be equated with power. (Interestingly, there’s a coaching school for secondary students in Sydney whose motto is: Knowledge Is Power). That way of teaching was not likely to make riveting listening material for a synagogue congregation. In contrast, we hear that Jesus taught with authority. Some dictionaries trace for us the origins of words. Our word authority came into English from Greek via Latin. Its literal meaning in Greek is “out of one’s essence/essential”. Jesus taught from the core of his being.

In last week’s gospel-reading, we heard how Jesus began his public ministry by preaching throughout Galilee. This week, we learn that, on his arrival in Capernaum, he launched into teaching. Throughout his short Gospel, Mark refers to Jesus as a teacher at least thirty times. Moreover, Jesus’ way of teaching was not an expression of some power conferred on him or acquired from experience, but emanated from the core of his being. It was an expression of his inner life and integrity, an expression of his essence. In the New Testament, power is almost exclusively referred to as something negative. It can be grasped by forced, conferred by others and wielded by those who have acquired it. Its origin is external. In contrast, authority is internal, at the core of a person’s being. What’s more, when we encounter a person of genuine authority, we seem to recognise their authority intuitively.

In our own day and age, we sense that many of our civil and religious leaders operate through their use of external power endowed on them by title, status and position. What’s more, some develop a sense of entitlement and even cry “foul” when they lose their positions of power.

Using what is probably to us an uncomfortable example of single and married people, Paul, in today’s second reading from Corinthians (1 Corinthians 7, 32-35; and he pursues the topic into chapter 8.) touches on the topic of personal freedom. Most of us value our freedom as citizens of the nations to which we belong. However, today’s readings challenge us to reflect on whether we see that freedom as conferred, earned by personal effort or coming from deep within.

In recent weeks and months, we have seen demonstrations, peaceful and violent, by people who are vocal about their treasured liberty and constitutional rights. As Christians, we are assured by Paul that we have “the freedom of the children of God” (cf Romans 8, 21). Paul also warned that individual knowledge/liberty “puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Corinthians 8, 1). He proceeded to explain how genuine, loving sensitivity to our neighbours is an authentic experience of true freedom. It’s interesting, isn’t it, that, in the Covid environment in which we now find ourselves, we meet people who refuse to wear protective masks on the grounds of so-called constitutional rights and personal freedom. Yet, choosing to adopt precautionary practices such as “mandatory mask-wearing” for the sake of fellow citizens is a truly genuine expression of freedom, a powerful expression of core-based authority. That’s the gospel-based authority and liberty out of which Jesus’ teaching authority emanated. Incidentally, in his tract entitled Freedom of a Christian, written five hundred years ago, Martin Luther wrote: “The Christian is the perfectly free lord (sic) of all, subject to none. The Christian is a perfectly dutiful subject to all, servant to all.”

Finally, there’s the man with the unclean spirit. We might wonder how he found his way into the synagogue, given that there were laws and prohibitions restricting the movement of those suffering from almost every kind of illness. Yet, this unfortunate fellow was there, and the spirit that controlled him recognised Jesus for who he was. The message for us is that we can all allow ourselves to be “possessed” by attitudes and prejudices that curtail or deprive us of our freedom. – jealousy, self-importance, status, unhealthy life-styles, substance addictions, fear of people who are different, excessive anxiety and worry, a reluctance to forgive or let go of old hurts. The first step towards finding freedom from whatever it is that restricts us is to recognise whose authority we choose to follow. Once we recognise that the source of living with wholeness is Jesus himself, we then have to take the steps to embrace his teaching, and to allow our conduct to be guided by the authority given to us by God’s Spirit planted deep within us.