The Gospel today highlights the authority of Jesus. He does not get his authority by virtue of a job in senior management, as if in losing the job he would lose his authority. His authority proceeds from who he is. To speak of Christ’s authority is really to speak of who he is.
And who is he? What is his nature? He is the only Son of the only God, of God who is Love. His natures are divine and human: divine love made flesh. Divine love is not just sentiment or emotion. It is the origin and ground of all that exists. Divine love is the life of things and the truth of things. The love-authority of Jesus gives life and speaks truth, a life that no-one can kill and a truth that no-one can contradict.
At his baptism in the Jordan, the man Jesus was confirmed in the divine love by the Father’s voice from heaven. In the desert, that love was tested by Satan and conquered him. Now Jesus brings that love-authority to the synagogue in Capernaum.
And the people don’t know what hit them! Our text says that they were “deeply impressed” and “astonished” by his teaching. A better rendering is that they were deeply unsettled, disturbed even, by his teaching. They had only been used to the quiet boredom of the scribes who simply voiced their own academic opinions. Not so Jesus. He teaches them with authority, with the power of a love that impacted them so deeply in heart and soul, in mind and conscience, that it took their breath away. They were gob-smacked by its power and probably deeply afraid and shocked by its demands on them.
Further proof of Christ’s authority is demonstrated in the exorcism that took place in the synagogue. We are told that the poor chap in question was possessed by an unclean spirit. Experts today tell us that this probably meant a combination of psychiatric illness and the presence of an evil spirit who displaced the man’s capacity to be in charge of himself.
Jesus’ presence and teaching will have provoked the evil spirit. As it says itself, “I know who you are – the Holy One of God!” The evil spirit is mightily threatened by the presence of the Holy Spirit in Jesus. Hence the loud cry, a cry of angry fear, an attempt perhaps to frighten the man Jesus. It resists Jesus defiantly by crying, “what to us and to you, Jesus of Nazareth?” which is apparently a military phrase used to set the boundaries between two sides. But it is only bluffing because it recognises that Jesus has come to destroy the kingdom of Satan and replace it with the Kingdom of God. Against Jesus, it stands no chance. At any rate, out of compassion for the demoniac, Jesus wastes no time and proceeds to exorcise the unclean spirit.
At the time of Jesus, exorcisms were usually performed by employing all manner of incantation and magical gestures. Not so with Jesus. The authority of his word is sufficient. Jesus basically says, “shut up and get lost” to the evil spirit, nothing more! The unclean spirit knows it has to go, yet makes clear its non-conformity by again shouting and throwing the poor demoniac into convulsions.
This scene, placed deliberately by St. Mark towards the beginning of his Gospel, is very powerful. By the love-authority of his word, Jesus radically unsettles his listeners and overthrows the reign of evil. He is showing that the time has come for the Kingdom of God to reign supreme (exorcism), and thus for repentance and true faith in the Good News to take hold (disturbance of the people). His authority of love liberates the possessed and shakes up the others so as to offer them liberation from sin and the promise of a new life as disciples of Jesus.
Have I ever been “flummoxed” by the Word of Christ or of his Church? Have I let the power of his loving authority question my way of thinking, acting, living? Do I domesticate the Gospel or the teaching of the Church to fit in with my comfort zone, ignoring Christ’s demands while paying lip-service to his easier sayings? Am I ready to let the loving authority of Christ confront and overthrow the evil in my life? Do I truly want his kingdom, his dominion in my life, or do I want the dominion of someone or something else?
The scene in the synagogue in Capernaum is alive and relevant in all its power here and now. It puts you and I in crisis today, in your homes and in this church. Faith and fudge are like oil and water: they don’t mix. The love of Christ can only truly delight us if it first truly disturbs us. Christ’s love cannot survive on the edges of who we are. Either it gets admission to the centre of our hearts and lives or it will withdraw. If the evil spirit recognised Jesus as the Holy One of God and could do nothing else but obey him, even unwillingly, what does that mean for us who have been redeemed by his blood, baptised in his death and enriched with his grace?