True Authority

Mark 1:21-28 – The 4th Sunday after Epiphany – for February 1, 2015

“The people were amazed by his teaching, for he was teaching them with authority . . .” (Mark 1:22)

It was in a college class in 1973 when one of my speech communication professors recalled Martin Luther King’s appearance at a rally in the mid-‘60s.

King had captured the attention of every listener.
King had captured the attention of every listener.

The professor was white, highly educated, and had been raised in Depression-era Texas. He described, as he lectured to his students, the remarkable reactions he’d witnessed as King inspired the crowd. There were men and women, young and old, poorly and richly dressed, black and white (along with the other colors humans are labeled with); some sat and others stood while all pressed against their neighbor as they listened.

And they all seemed to be listening. That’s what amazed this professor, a dispassionate evaluator of speeches and debates. At some point, he had reluctantly shifted from King’s riveting words to study those near him. King had captured the attention of every listener.

King spoke with authority.

King’s words—his truths, hopes, dreams, metaphors, stories, confessions, criticisms, and challenges—seemed to impact and impress each individual. One smiled. Another nodded. The next wept. There was cheering, clapping, amens!, and hugs.

Perhaps the professor, influenced by the tragic events soon to follow, overstated his recollections from that rally. Perhaps King’s murder, and the ongoing anguish of a nation roiling with racism and an endless war in Vietnam, had caused his memories to elevate King’s presence far beyond the reality of the rally?

I don’t think so.

*       *       *

Near the opening verses of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus spoke to worshippers in a Capernaum synagogue. In Mark’s version of Jesus’ ministry, this gathering was the first time Jesus taught in public. This synagogue also represented the site of his first miracle, as the carpenter from Nazareth healed a man with an unclean spirit.

But before (and after) that healing, that astounding and confounding event, there were words.

Jesus taught them, Mark tersely reported.

They listened.

They couldn’t not listen.

Why?

Authority?

The remains of the synagogue in Capernaum.
The remains of the synagogue in Capernaum.

What did those Jewish men hear in that synagogue? And maybe—though I imagine this since Mark’s author didn’t give details about the worshippers—there were more than men. Perhaps there were men and women, with the women in a separated space, or hovering by the door and eavesdropping. Perhaps those present were young and old, poorly and richly dressed, black and white (along with the other colors humans are labeled with); some sat and others stood while all pressed against their neighbor as they listened.

Mark didn’t report what Jesus said.

Mark didn’t identify which Hebrew scripture was read.

Mark didn’t reveal if Jesus spoke for a brief or extended time before the “person with the evil spirit” was healed. Mark also didn’t recount how much more Jesus shared after the miracle.

And yet before the miracle, and after the miracle, and after Jesus had departed for Simon’s home, and then all through the “region of Galilee,” the ones who heard spoke of his . . . authority. The ones who heard second-hand from the ones who had first heard spoke of his . . . authority. And then the ones they told spoke of his . . .

Who has spoken to you with authority?

A professor, who was there, later shared with a class about one of history’s most influential humans having the power—the authority—to speak so that everyone heard and that professor told and retold his feelings, his amazement, about witnessing King speak.

I recall the intimate moments of my father-in-law, also a pastor, listening to me complain how a colleague in ministry had lied to others about me. That intentional deceit forced me to leave a church. I was crushed, angry, and felt lost. My father-in-law loved me. I was family. My father-in-law had been in ministry decades longer than me and had “seen it all.” So, when we talked about those demoralizing—even evil—lies spread about me, our relationship and profession bonded us.

But. There. Was. More.

I believe my father-in-law spoke with authority to a troubled crowd of one. His words uplifted me. His words helped transform my anger about the past to hope for a future, from childish “Woe is me” and “Why me” complaints to the tough, mature, life-giving questions like, “Where is God calling me next?”

Authority uplifts. Authority invites equality. Authority judges without being judgmental. Authority demands without being demanding. Authority, in the Realm of God, is when there’s a choice between blessing or curse and blessing is always—always—chosen. Authority is where holy actions match the human words, and the words—mere consonants and vowels—become spirit-infused actions unto themselves.

Jesus healed a man with an unclean spirit. But didn’t all worshippers in or outside that synagogue have an “unclean spirit?” Isn’t that the case today? I believe Jesus’ holy but not holier-than-thou words were spoken to transform everyone in that gathering. How could they not share what they’d heard? What they’d felt?

So much of the time we speak with caution or cunning. We withhold feelings and blame others for failures. We jokingly or rightly “question authority,” but too often hide behind the grim silence of self-pity.

But in Jesus’ first public words he reminded those then, and us now, that true authority always openly invites healing for each and every person.

(King picture from here. Capernaum picture from here.)

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