This year’s Epiphany season is an incredible journey! It’s like Mark (and the Epiphany season itself) is so determined to show us who Jesus really is that he will go to any lengths to give us a glimpse of Jesus’ character and purpose. After skipping over the baptism and temptation stories of Jesus, Mark jumps straight into the action. Last week he gave us the basic summary of Jesus’ message. This week, he shows us the impact that message has on the people who heard it – including a “supernatural” being. What this does, is give us a brief glimpse of Jesus through the eyes of John the Baptist, God, the people Jesus taught, and even an evil spirit. When it comes to manifesting God’s glory, even evil can give us a reflection if we will but look and learn.
In Mark 1:21-28 we read the first part of a day in Jesus’ life. The synagogue, which is the centre of Hebrew religious and community life, is a good launch pad for a career as a traveling preacher, and Jesus is quite happy to begin there. There were synagogues all over the place – wherever ten families or more were settled together, a synagogue was formed. It’s primary function was teaching, but significantly, according to William Barclay, few synagogues had their own resident teachers, so visiting preachers were usually welcomed warmly. This explains why it was so easy for Jesus to find places to share his message. Mark doesn’t tell us what Jesus preached on this day, but it’s a reasonable assumption that it would have been in line with the basic message Mark has already revealed.
The point, for Mark, is not so much what Jesus said, but how the people responded to what he said. They are amazed at Jesus’ authority – a quality which, Mark indicates, is noticeably lacking in the teachings of the religious experts. Apparently, the scribes and Pharisees, when they taught, made a habit of supporting their content with reference to other authorities. Jesus, on the other hand, needs no external authority to back up his message – he is his own authority. This word, ‘authority’ (exousia in the Greek) is related to the word exesti which means ‘it is free’ or ‘it is permitted’. In the light of this, authority can be interpreted as “unhindered or sovereign freedom”.
Which begs the question – where did he get the audacity to claim such authority for himself? The answer is fairly simple, I believe, but we need two of the other Gospel writers to help us answer it. In Matthew’s Gospel a Roman official comes to Jesus begging him to heal his servant who has fallen ill. When Jesus replies that he will go with the man to his house, he responds that this is unnecessary. Jesus need only say the word, he says, and the servant will be healed. He knows this because he is one who is under authority and therefore can expect obedience from those he commands (See Matthew 8:8-9 NLT). This official recognizes that his authority derives from the fact that he is under a greater authority. Jesus, it seems, has the same approach as the Roman official, but his “higher authority” is not a human one. In John 5:19, Jesus makes it clear who’s authority he submits to: “I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by Himself. He does only what He sees the Father doing. Whatever the Father does, the Son also does.” (NLT) So, in the first instance, Jesus derives his authority from God – it a “systemic authority” rooted in the Reign of God which he preaches.
But, it doesn’t stop there. Jesus, in his healings – as in the exorcism related in this week’s Gospel – reveals his love and compassion for the people he is preaching to. This gives him a “social authority” derived from the fact that the people are drawn to him and feel safe with him. Finally, Jesus doesn’t just preach a message. He embodies that message – he “walks the talk”. When he says that God’s Reign is at hand, he reveals it to be true by confronting and overcoming an evil spirit. In this way, Jesus has a “self-authority” – a personal authority derived from his own integrity. In every way, the authority of Jesus was different from that of the religious teachers. It was a “new teaching”, a new authority that was unlike anything they had experienced.
The extent of Jesus’ authority is explored in the first few chapters of Mark’s Gospel, and as we journey with him we discover that he has authority over both the natural and supernatural worlds (the account of the calming the storm in chapter four and the casting out of the evil spirit here are remarkably parallel), he has authority over the Sabbath (See the end of chapter two), and he even has the authority to forgive sins (the beginning of chapter two)!
But, not only is the extent of Jesus authority different from anything the people have seen before. The character of Jesus authority is also completely different. Where both Rome and the religious leadership of Israel used their authority as a dominant “power over” authority, Jesus refuses to do this – even when people try to manipulate him into it. Where Judas and others like him, derive authority from behind the scenes, pretending not to seek power, but using a manipulative “power under”, Jesus never does this either. Instead, what we experience in this scene – and in the whole of the Gospel – is Jesus using his authority to empower others through liberating them and serving them. The authority of Jesus is collaborative and shared. Although his authority is “sovereign freedom” Jesus willingly gives up his freedom in order to bring freedom and life to others. Paul speaks of a similar authority or strength in the Epistle reading from 1 Corinthians 8:1-13 when he states that although he is free to eat food that has been sacrificed to idols, he would refrain from doing so if it would cause a brother or sister to stumble. He is happy to give up his freedom, and potentially appear weak, for the sake of others.
The question of authority is an important one for those of us who seek to follow Christ. Power issues are daily realities in every family, every organisation, every community and every nation. Every person exerts authority in some way, however small, even if it is only over ourselves. The challenge of Christ’s message and example is to embrace a way of “doing authority” that is completely different from that of our human systems. It is to realise that authority is derived not from climbing the ladders of power in our world, but by submitting to the purposes and values of God’s Reign. It is to reject the temptation to cling to power in fear of losing it, but, through compassion and service, to share it in a commitment to collaborative community. And it is to refuse to settle for whatever outward authority we may be given by the systems we participate in, but to discover our true authority from within by living with radical integrity.
But, perhaps the most challenging and transforming call of Christ when it comes to authority is that we learn to give up our own freedom and power for the sake of others. When we, like Christ, are committed to liberating and healing our companions and our communities, then, and only then, can we begin to claim any small portion of the authority of Jesus. But, of course, were we to truly follow Christ in this way, we would have no interest in claiming authority for ourselves at all – we would leave that to God and to others to decide. It reminds me of the words of an elder colleague in ministry that I heard many years ago. He said, “I am a servant to every person. But, no person is my master or mistress.”