Do you remember being young, and having a messy room, and your parent coming in and saying to you, “Clean up your room!” and you respond with “why?” and the parent then says, “Because I told you to!” and sometimes that elicited the proper response of cleaning one’s room while other times it might lead to the comment, “You’re not the boss of me!” While I am not a parent myself, now as an adult, I can appreciate how challenging parenting can be- especially when a child begins to debate the parent’s authority in dictating what the child can or can not do.
Today we are continuing to hear accounts from Mark about the early stages of Jesus’ ministry. Last week Jason shared with us Mark’s account of the calling of the first four disciples- and explained that Jesus was definitely breaking with tradition when he went out seeking disciples rather than disciples seeking him. Today Mark continues to develop Jesus’ character and we hear Mark’s first account of a miracle. The author is using an event in the temple to establish both Jesus’ healing ministry as well as Jesus’ authority and wisdom. A big part of the discussions that take place are about authority. First, Jesus seems to teach with authority- he appears to have a confidence and knowledge on subjects that not even the scribes seem to command. Then an unclean spirit obeys his command which means he’s displaying an authority that has never been seen before. I’m going to tell you right now that I am a rule follower- most of the time.
Understanding what the rules are and how to follow them is important to me- in part because I have faith that most rules have been created with our best interests in mind. Over the past year I have learned a lot about rules and authority- and who wields it. A year ago, I’m going to bet that none of us knew who our provincial or federal health officers were let alone the fact that they could declare public orders. The authority of the session, as it is they who decide the time and date of worship, and therefore the ones who decide when the church should be open, has been invaluable to me. It is good to have a team of people who make these decisions! But I know, it hasn’t always been easy to appreciate this authority or the rules.
Historically, the Church- I mean the wider institution, not necessarily our individual denomination or congregation- has not exercised authority well. In fact, throughout history we have condemned, persecuted and even killed those who challenged the Church’s authority, think of the Inquisition or Reformation. Or the church abused the authority it had, like the doctrine of discovery. There are often conflicting opinions about the church’s role and authority within society, especially a secular one like ours. You’ve heard me say that politics has no place in the pulpit- because I view that as an abuse of authority- but I also firmly believe the church has the authority to speak out against injustices, which can sometimes be political. Leaders within the church hold in tension this balance between asserting authority and being open to the Spirit’s wisdom. It’s complicated- and it appears that it has always been a bit complicated.
Today’s passage contains a pattern that is quite prevalent in Mark’s version of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee. It occurs in a sacred space, in this case the synagogue, at a sacred time, in this case on the sabbath, while engaging with those on the margins, in this case a man with an unclean spirit. But the whole point of the story is to demonstrate Jesus’ authority- and it gets a bit complicated. I want to point out, a couple weeks ago, when we heard the story of Jesus’ baptism I mentioned that many other translations of the story use the word immediately. Jason also mentioned last week how Mark loves the term immediately. While we don’t hear it in our NRSV version, in the original Greek, the word for immediately appears twice in this passage. First, at the very beginning when it was the sabbath, they immediately go the synagogue. Second in verse 23 after Jesus has taught with such authority immediately a man enters. In the first case when they immediately go to the synagogue on the sabbath this is to display the authority of tradition. In the second, the sudden-ness of the man demonstrates how immediate one’s response to Jesus’ authority can be.
Notice how, while people clearly are astounded by Jesus’ teaching, it is the man with the unclean spirit- a man who likely would have been on the outskirts of the temple, normally shooed away when he would start to make noises, a man either possessed by a spirit, or perhaps in modern language struggling with mental illness such as schizophrenia or drug addiction. It is this man who says, “I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” I think, we are often like the people in the synagogue, people who are interested or astounded or even amazed by the word of the Lord but don’t always know what to do with that information. Yet, this man is the one, one of the first in Mark’s gospel, to declare who Jesus really is. Also, if this is an unclean spirit, then it stands to reason that because of Jesus’ authority his very presence threatens the spirit’s control over the possessed man. So many things demand our attention these days, so many things seem to control us- and a lot of those things would be threatened if we completely turned our lives over to the authority of Jesus. But what does this authority really mean?
The Rev. Nigel Robb, who specializes in developing dementia programs for churches, actually helps us understand the authority of Jesus in this passage. He writes, “Authority means power, conviction and, in this case, God speaking. Power is recognized by the crowd not in the miracle, but in the way Jesus spoke and did not rely on other historical tradition or inherited wisdom. It is beginning to dawn on the crowd that something different was in Jesus. Jesus’ authority over illness and demons, over the Law and its applications stems from the sense of urgency that His announcement of the proximity of God’s reign encapsulated.” Basically, when this story was told and retold to the community, and then recorded by Mark, then Luke, it was to bring the community hope that God was immediately and presently at work within their own traumas. The community was living under Roman occupation, had seen their saviour killed, heard rumours of his resurrection, and were afraid of their future. Rev. Robb goes on, “The story was treasured to indicate that real power was with them in the midst of universal upheaval.”
Jesus’ authority has not changed. Jesus still has power, conviction and the Words of God. And this authority includes power over all the uncertainties and idols that control us. Authority that speaks words of comfort and challenge- particularly as we continue to fail at proper use of authority within and from the church. And when we read or hear those words of challenge and we start to ask “why?”, all God needs to say is, “Because I said so!” Amen