Some Thoughts on this 4th Sunday in Ordinary Time, January 31, 2021.
I know who you are – the Holy One of God!” Unlike the unclean spirit, the people in that synagogue, in this Sunday's Gospel (Mark 1:21-28), did not know Jesus’ true identity. They did, however, recognize how he taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes. And that astonished and amazed them. It’s not just that they recognized that Jesus was a genuine teacher. They recognized that he was a very different kind of teacher from the scribes with whom they were familiar. And it all came down to a question of authority. Jesus’ distinctive authority is emphasized at both the beginning and the end of the Gospel account. And, lest we still miss the point, this Sunday's 1st reading (Deuteronomy 18:15-20) also deals with the issue of authority.
Recently, we in the United States inaugurated our 46th President. As president, he has a lot of authority. There are, obviously, a lot of other people in the country (and in the world) with authority. Most of that authority, however, like the President’s is limited in some way. That is what makes it legitimate authority. It follows certain rules, and it may not exceed the limits that those rules authorize. When those rules are transgressed, when those limits are circumvented, authority loses its legitimacy and resembles the malevolent, personal, charismatic authority of a mob boss or "populist" politician.
The scribes enjoyed legitimate authority to teach the people, but they could legitimately teach only what they themselves had been taught. Jesus evidently exercised a very different type of authority. It was not the normal legitimate authority that comes with an office or an assigned place in some social hierarchy or religious chain of command. A social scientist might categorize Jesus as someone with personal, charismatic authority. Charismatic authority resides in the person, and not in an office or role. Charismatic authority may be benign on malignant. The Beatles had a benign kind of charismatic authority for my generation. Unfortunately for the human race, the last 100 or so years in politics have produced many more malignant charismatic authorities. hence the effort to circumscribe personal political authority with rules and "guardrails."
A social scientist might well explain away the Jesus phenomenon as a clear case of charismatic authority. That’s probably how the scribes saw him, and why they opposed him so strenuously. The people, however, unlike the scribes seemed somewhat more pleased with what they saw, which to them may have resembled some sort of transgressive, populist, charismatic authority. Only the unclean spirit saw something more. Only the unclean spirit saw the while picture, because he understood the true source of Jesus’ authority. “I know who you are – the Holy One of God!”
As God’s Son – as God himself – Jesus’ authority is in a class by itself. It is neither the legitimate authority of the scribes, nor the personal authority of a charismatic leader. It is the one thing that no one was really ready for – holy authority, the divine authority of God himself.
All through history, people have always tried to connect with God, although preferably on their own terms. Left to themselves, the gentile pagans tried to do so, by engaging in such sinful practices as spiritualism, divination, and astrology. Over time, the people of Israel had learned to shun all such practices. They had come to understand that all communication between God and his people would ultimately be only on God’s terms. It was to spare them the frightening experience of having to deal with God directly, that God had communicated through a series of intermediaries, known as prophets, the greatest of whom had been Moses. By Jesus’ time, however, even prophecy seemed to have stopped. All the people had left was the legitimate authority of the scribes. In itself, of course, that was a fairly fine thing to have, but it wasn’t as exciting as having a prophet like Moses. (It’s a bit like the difference between our benignly charismatic Founding Fathers back in the 18th century and our current 117th Congress today.)
Israel, however, had reason to hope. Moses had promised that prophecy would not disappear forever. One last prophet will be raised up from among their kin to bridge the gap between God and us once and for all. Unlike a merely charismatic personality, however, this prophet will be full of God, rather than full of himself. Jesus, the Son of God, the Word made flesh, is that One with holy, healing authority – as the unclean spirit could see, whether or not anyone else could (or would) see.
The fascinating paradox of today’s Gospel account is that it is precisely by sharing in the unclean spirit’s fortunate insight into the true nature of Jesus’ holy, healing authority that we can best hope to avoid the unclean spirit’s unfortunate fate. And it is also by sharing in the unclean spirit’s fortunate insight into the true nature of Jesus’ authority that we can now hope to share in the holy and healing freedom that the possessed man in the Gospel story experienced - as a physical foreshadowing of what is in store for all who accept Jesus’ authority in their lives.
Overwhelmingly, the vast majority of people in the United States profess some degree of belief in Jesus Christ. How, however, is that ostensible acceptance of his authority effectively reflected in recognition that Jesus really is the way to an abundant life in eternity and to a life that makes real sense here and now?
What authority does Jesus, the Holy One of God, effectively exercise in my life? What difference does it make for me that I acknowledge his authority. What has it actually meant for me in my life so far? What might it mean for me in the future? And what might it mean for the wider world, if I actually acknowledge Jesus’ authority in my life?
(Photo: Jesus exercising his unique healing authority, Mural, Saint Paul the Apostle Church, NYC.)