January 28, 2018

4th Sunday after The Epiphany Year B

Growing up, my Dad’s job would move us every three of four years and so I was always having to start over making a place for myself in school. In fourth grade I made a place for myself by setting the record for the most trips to the principal’s office. The next year, I was placed in Mrs. Edward’s accelerated fifth grade class, the one with all the smart kids. How did I end up here, I asked Mrs. Edwards. Oh, she said, I heard about you and requested you be put in my class. Mrs. Edwards taught as one who had authority, because I knew she loved me and all of her students.

I think of teachers like Mrs. Edwards and I’m amazed at the impact they’ve had on my life and the lives of so many other students.  I’m amazed at the way good teachers continue to feed us long after we’ve left their presence.  They were poorly paid, they spent long hours in school, they had to deal with some kids that didn’t want to learn, they won’t ever be famous, yet they changed my life and so many others.

It is into this world of powerful teachers that our Gospel lesson calls us to enter.  It is early in the ministry of Jesus in the gospel of Mark.  And it begins with Jesus teaching.  But not just any kind of teaching, it is teaching unlike that of the Scribes and Pharisees, Jesus teaches with “authority.”

It’s interesting that we don’t hear the content of Jesus’ teaching.  It’s almost as if Mark is saying, “the content isn’t the important part.”  In the gospel of Mark what makes Jesus’ teaching authoritative is his presence; his teaching is authoritative because of who he is — he is “the Holy One of God.”

It’s kind of like those good teachers in our past.  We don’t remember the details of what they taught as much as we remember the power of their presence.

The people automatically contrast Jesus’ teaching with what they know, with what they have experienced, with the teaching of the scribes.   And, unlike the scribes, the people perceive Jesus to teach with “authority.”  In other words, Jesus brings something extra to the table, Jesus has something the scribes don’t.  What is that something extra?  Well, just look at what happens next — Jesus heals a man with an unclean spirit.  In the gospel of Mark, there’s no differentiation between Jesus’ teaching and his healing.  It’s all part of the same package.  So, when the people hear Jesus teach with authority and see Jesus heal with authority, they’re “astounded, amazed” because this is something new.  This is not at all like what they’ve experienced with the scribes.  This teacher is different.

In today’s world, we often use the words “power” and “authority” interchangeably.  But I want to make a distinction between the two.  If we peer into the world in which Jesus lived, the scribes, along with Pharisees and the Sadducees, had the “power.”  They held the official positions of power. They were the interpreters of the law.  They decided what and who was acceptable, and what and who was not acceptable.  They were part of the “cultural power structure” of the day.  Their “power” was simply a given.  However, they did not necessarily have the support or confidence of the people - they lacked “authority.”   Dictators, for example, may be powerful because they have an army behind them, but they lack genuine “authority” in the hearts and minds of the people.   The Apartheid government may have had the power in South Africa for many years, but a jailed man named Nelson Mandela had the authority.

It’s a similar situation for the scribes.  The scribes are often presented in the gospels as oppressors of the people who lack a genuine understanding of the law and who possess little understanding of grace.  In other words, they’re lousy teachers — but they’re still powerful because of their position in the society.  

Genuine “authority” comes not from one’s position in the society but from somewhere within one’s self.  “Authority,” is embodied through a sense of call and an integration of the personality with genuine authenticity.  Their teaching is simply an expression of who they are. That’s what the people in our Gospel lesson recognized in Jesus. He taught out of the wellspring of who he was, the holy One of God. So his teaching had authority.

Good teachers have authority; their teaching is authoritative, because of their God-given gifts, because God has called them to be teachers.  Good teachers are teachers for the right reasons.  They teach not for the money, not for the prestige; they teach because they’re called, because it’s who they are as compassionate, caring, gracious people.  And it’s those God-given aspects of their person that give their teaching authority.

So, to have “power” does not necessarily mean one has “authority.”  Especially when we think in terms of “moral authority.” 

Just because someone has “authority” does not necessarily mean they have power.  Jesus had the authority, but in the end it was the scribes and the Pharisees who had the power to call for his crucifixion.  “Authority,” in the best sense of the word, is persuasive, it does not need nor does it depend on threats of force.  People gravitate toward genuine authority because it is persuasive, because it speaks to the heart, because genuine authority is recognized as being different, it’s recognized as having come from a genuine place of love and compassion.

So, Jesus is different from the scribes, because Jesus is said to teach with “authority.”  Jesus’ authority comes from the compassion he has for the people.  He is identified by the demon as, “the Holy One of God.” And it’s this divine authority that we see unfold in the gospel of Mark.  It’s this divine authority that is constantly being critiqued by those in power because they feel threatened by it; it is this divine authority that is constantly being challenged because they fear losing their power.  The authority of love will always triumph over the coerciveness of power. And that is what we see at the end of Mark’s Gospel – the power of love that overcomes the cross.

Mrs. Edwards taught me that authority comes from love. I would have done anything for her. But all she asked me to do was to be me, the best me I could be. And I hear God’s voice when I remember her. Now it’s my turn and your turn to respond to God’s call to live lives of authenticity and love as we follow Jesus and take his light into a world that needs someone to say, “I heard about you and I want you to be a part of my class.”