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Teaching With Authority

Mark 1:21-28

Mark 1:21 They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22 They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23 Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24 and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” 25 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” 26 And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27 They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” 28 At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

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What do you think about when you hear the word “tradition?” Maybe you think of something your family does every year at Thanksgiving or Christmas, something your parents did with you when you were a child and that you in turn did with your kids when they were little. And so maybe you hear that word and you envision comfort and familiarity, a sense of continuity amidst an ever-changing world. But maybe, at the same time, “tradition” calls to mind experiences that were a bit more stifling, a parent who always had to do things their way, a pastor who just told you that the questions you were asking were wrong but wouldn’t explain why, a boss who made everyone miserable because they couldn’t get with the times. You hear “tradition” and you think of empty rituals, mechanical repetition, doing things just because we’ve always done them that way.

We have all received traditions, been shaped by stories and activities that have been passed down to us. One writer said that “tradition is the democracy of the dead,” it’s the vote of those who have gone before us. And yet even while our traditions connect us to the past and seem to stabilize the present, at the same time, every tradition comes with tensions, questions that aren’t easily resolved that leave us saying, “Just because we’ve always done things this way doesn’t mean that’s a good way to do things.” Tradition can be a gift; tradition can be a wound. Over time, it’s both, and the gift and the wound together leave us asking, how do I honor who I’ve been while becoming who I need to be? How do we do that together?  

In our Scripture this morning, we see Jesus and the synagogue at Capernaum navigating these tensions. This scene is important because this is the task of every Christian community. We have received teachings and practices that connect us directly to the early church and biblical Israel; the words of Scripture are addressed to us. And yet we find ourselves in very different circumstances. The world is ever changing and we have to figure out how to live with what we’ve been given. What do we leave behind and what do we take with us? What kind of people is Jesus calling us to be now?

The story begins just after Jesus has called the disciples. Right away they go to the town of Capernaum and into the synagogue on the Sabbath. This is the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. He’s been baptized, he’s been tempted in the desert, he’s called his first followers, and now it’s time to get to work. And to get started, Jesus takes the disciples to church. They go into a sacred space at a sacred time. Jesus begins by locating himself within the traditions of his people.

And in that place, he begins to teach. Mark doesn’t tell us what exactly he said, but he does want us to know that Jesus got everyone’s attention. As Jesus speaks, the people in the synagogue were “astounded,” astonished, because Jesus doesn’t teach like the scribes, but as someone who had authority.

The people were astonished by what they heard. That Greek word for astonished, in other contexts, means literally “to strike out.” It’s like Jesus teaches and they have this visceral response to what he’s saying, like the put their hands up to shield themselves. Why is this guy from Nazareth teaching as though he has authority? Can he do that? Why doesn’t he just stick to what’s tried and true, like the scribes?

In the world of the New Testament, the job of the scribe is to transmit their knowledge of the Scriptures to the people. If anyone wasn’t sure how the Law applied to a situation, like say a conflict with a neighbor, then the Scribes could help people get clear about the letter of the law. The Scribes are committed to what the Bible says, and for them the Bible says what their elders and teachers say it says. They’re job isn’t to be clever, or to offer a new interpretation, a new teaching. It’s just to transmit.

But sometimes something would happen in places like Capernaum, where it’s not clear what the Law says or how to apply it, and so the scribes needed to call in for back up. When they didn’t know how to apply the Law to a situation, they would send the case up to the Sanhedrin, the council of rabbis at the Temple in Jerusalem, and the teachers at the Temple would give their ruling. And sometimes, even they could be stumped. The tensions in the tradition become so drawn out that the old, familiar answers don’t quite work and you need a new teaching. And in ancient Judaism, the teachers who were able to offer a new interpretation were said to teach with authority. Teachers who taught with authority said something new.

So the people who taught with authority, the great Rabbis, the spiritual sages, didn’t teach like the scribes, transmitting and repeating what has been said before. They knew what was said before, but they went beyond and offered a new interpretation, a new teaching, reading the Bible in a new way. In fact, according to tradition, Rabbis with authority could even declare parts of the Law null and void. A later Rabbi named Maimonides put it this way: Just as a physician is sometimes compelled to amputate the limb of a patient in order to save his life and general health, so those in authority may at any time decree the…suspension of some laws in order to secure the fulfillment of the religious law in general. That’s what it meant to teach with authority. It was built into the tradition that sometimes the tradition needs rearranging.

Mark doesn’t tell us exactly what Jesus says, but when we read that he preached as one having authority, and not like the Scribes, we’re learning that Jesus said something new, something strange, something that didn’t fit with the received wisdom, but was instead charting out a different path from anything anyone had taken before, and the people were astounded. Is this OK?

It’s hard to hear a new teaching. We come to church and we sing these same hymns and read these same Scriptures and pray many of the same prayers, week after week, year after year. We have received teachings that have given us life, that have been a light to us in dark times, that are clear and coherent and just makes sense to us. Usually, that’s what we want to hear. We want to have our stories about how God works and who we are and who’s really a sinner confirmed for us. We are creatures of habit, set in our ways, comforted by the familiar. So it’s hard to hear a new teaching, to take up a new practice, to do something we’ve never done before.

The most common reaction to something new is suspicion, distrust. It’s amazing how many great teachers of the church were considered heretics when they started teaching, only for their teachings to become the received wisdom of the next generation. But in the moment, it’s hard to hear a new teaching because we can’t help but wonder, “What about the old one?” What about everything I’ve known, everything that’s comforted me, the old, old story that I learned from my parents and my Sunday school teachers? Is that destroyed?

As the people in the synagogue are sitting there, their mouths agape, a man cries out. We’re told he’s a man with an “unclean” spirit. There is something possessing him. It speaks with his voice, and it makes him afraid. The man with the unclean spirit says, What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” What have you to do with us? We’re people who teach the Bible. I don’t know what that is that you just said. Have you come to destroy us? Have you come to change our way of life? Your fancy new interpretation will lead us off the straight and narrow and right into the ditch. If it ain’t broke, why are you trying to fix it? I know who you are, the Holy One of God, and we don’t really want to hear from God. Who can hear God’s voice and live? We’d rather stay at the bottom of the mountain and make gods we can get our hands on. Leave us, leave us to our scribes, to our common sense, leave us to what we already know. We don’t want your teaching with authority. We don’t want anything more than what we already have.

The unclean Spirit admits that Jesus is the holy one of God. What makes it an “unclean” Spirit is that it prefers traditions that teach us about God over an actual Word from God, which is the very definition of idolatry; and the tragedy of idolatry is that it causes us to miss the infinite possibilities of what God can do in the world. Leo Tolstoy tells a story about 3 monks who’ve been marooned on a desert island. One day a ship carrying an archbishop passes by the island and the bishop goes ashore to meet the monks. They know only one prayer: “We are three as ye are three, Lord have mercy on us.” The bishop tries to teach them the liturgy and the prayers of the church but they’re hopeless. They can only remember their one prayer: We are three as ye are three, Lord have mercy on us. The Bishop is exasperated by their inability to learn and so he leaves them on their island and he’s rowing back to his ship, when all of the sudden, he sees the three monks running on the water saying, “Good bishop, we’ve forgotten all the prayers you’ve taught us!”

In this story, it is demonic to reject what God is doing now because it seems different from how we’ve talked about God in the past. Jesus doesn’t give a second thought to our clinging to our ways of doing things. Jesus casts this demon out. Christ has not given us a spirit of fear, a spirit that says our pet ways of naming God are the most important thing of all. And in that moment, the people are again amazed, but the Greek word is different. This time, when the unclean spirit is cast out, their amazement is one of awe. It’s like the spirit of fear has been lifted from all of them, and they see the possibilities in this new teaching: What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.

Now, none of this means that tradition is bad. Jesus continues to go into synagogues, continues to give a new teaching drawn from the Scriptures, gives the people new practices like baptism and the Lord’s Supper. It just means that traditions are the kind of things that are supposed to point beyond themselves. That’s what they’re for. Traditions are like notes or scales in a piece of music. It’d be foolish to think no one could ever write another piece of music just because you’ve learned your scales. Doing something new with them is the point! Jesus gives the disciples authority to cast out unclean spirits, gives the church the authority to bind and to loose, in the words of John’s Gospel, far more happened than has been written here; what is written here is written so you will believe. Even the Scriptures point beyond themselves. One writer describes the Bible as the first four acts of a play and our job is to stage the 5th act, improvising based on what we know of the first 4 acts. We see again and again in the Bible that you honor where you’ve come from by going somewhere new and improvising with the skills you’ve received along the way.

So, my friends, while we go forward as a congregation, may we ask God’s Spirit to teach us with authority. May we not find ourselves beholden to a Spirit of fear that says “Surely we’ll be destroyed.” The traditions we’ve received have graced us and wounded us and we have to figure out how to live together with what we’ve got, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do anything new. Jesus teaches with authority now as then, and calls us to live a new teaching with each other and in the world. So may we carry forward what we’ve been given, but may we be ready to do so in new, strange, maybe even scary ways, trusting the living God who is always within and yet always beyond our traditions. Amen.

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