Question Authority or Respect Authority?

| No Comments
Question Authority or Respect Authority?
Our Longing and Need for Redeeming Power (Mark 1:21-28)

Let's begin with a word association exercise. What word immediately comes to mind when you hear the word "authority"? Let's try another. What word immediately comes to mind when you hear the word "power"?

The first words that come to mind shed light on our instinctual response - our knee-jerk or gut reaction - to a particular concept. Was your gut reaction to "authority" positive or negative? Do you fundamentally question authority or respect authority? Or are you somewhere in-between? How about your reaction to "power"? Do you view power as primarily good or bad?

If you are like the majority of modern people your initial reaction to authority was probably negative. This is not surprising. Authority (the right to act) and power (the ability to act) are often abused. Our news is riddled with reports of politicians, clergy, teachers, and business people betraying the trust given them and abusing their power for selfish ends. Disillusioned by a seemingly endless stream of betrayals and abuses we have grown to mistrust authority and be suspicious of those in power.

But not all authority is bad and not all power is abused. Authority and power can be beautiful in service to the gospel.  

Everywhere (in politics, in the church, on school playgrounds where bullies rule, in neighborhoods torn apart by drug dealers, and in the world at large where private interests often destroy community) there is a longing and a constant prayer for someone to come and use power in a redeeming way to make things better. The longing for a messiah is in fact a longing for a redeeming power to enter into our lives.[1]

Our world longs for leaders who will exercise authority with integrity and use their power for the good of others.

I grew up watching reruns of the original Star Trek television series. I absolutely loved the show. My parents bought me a model kit that allowed me to create my own Tricorder, Communicator, and Phaser. With these tools in hand to aid my imagination, I would regularly pretend to be Captain Kirk. I remember that the wallpaper in my parent's room had a whole series of small circles that looked like panels of buttons. I would often fantasize that I had to move through the room and push all the buttons in order to save my starship (and the world!). While I would race around the room, the soundtrack of Star Trek would fill my head.

You may find this silly, but my boyhood fantasy expressed my desire to use authority and power for good. As Captain Kirk I had all the authority of Starfleet behind me. Armed with my trusty space instruments, I also had the power to execute authority for the common good.

Mark's story of Jesus' first experience in public ministry is a story about a new kind of authority and power - authority and power used to liberate from the powers of evil rather than add to them through oppression or self-seeking manipulation. This new kind of authority and power arises from the presence of God's kingdom at work in and through Jesus. Prior to this episode, the heavens were irreversibly ripped open at Jesus' baptism, releasing the Spirit into the world. This was followed by the summary of Jesus' teaching: "The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has drawn near" (Mark 1:15). God's kingdom has drawn near because God's king has arrived. This story is Jesus' first public demonstration of the power and authority of God's kingdom.

The dramatic exorcism of the demon from the unclean man serves as a sign of this liberating authority and life-giving power. It is framed by two reactions of amazement to Jesus' authoritative teaching to highlight this. The people are surprised by this new act of unconventional authority. They wonder where Jesus gained his authority to perform his deeds of power. We, the reader, know and understand that Jesus' authority and power - though unconventional - come from God.

The Story

On the Sabbath, Jesus takes his first disciples to a Capernaum synagogue where he had been invited to teach. The people respond to Jesus' teaching with astonishment. Why were they so amazed? Was it the depth of his content or the passion of his delivery? Mark does not leave us in the dark. He explains the reason for the crowd's astonishment: "for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes" (Mark 1:22).

The term "scribe" originally referred to people who copied the scriptures. Over time, the term came to refer to experts in the law, that is, lawyers. Scribes or lawyers were recognized as the authorized biblical scholars of the time. They impressed others with the profundity of their scholarship. It was their custom to bolster their authority by quoting famous rabbis.  

In contrast to the scribes, Jesus did not possess any officially sanctioned authority. He was uneducated, not having studied under a prominent rabbi. Unlike the scribes, he did not rely on quoting great rabbinic names as precedent for his teaching. Jesus' teaching spoke for itself. Williamson comments,

They [the scribes] taught with erudition, but Jesus taught with authority. Jesus interprets the Scripture as one who has the right to say what it means. Furthermore, his teaching has no need of external support, whether from Scriptures or elsewhere; his word is self-authenticating, not like that of the scribes.[2]

Clearly, Jesus was no ordinary rabbi. He did not depend on academic credentials or rabbinic precedent as his authority. He was more like a prophet directly commissioned by God to speak on God's behalf.

But even the term "prophet" fails to capture his authority and power, for he was no ordinary prophet. Jesus comes with the authority and power of God to bring liberation from evil powers that oppose God's reign. This is clearly evident in the event that follows.

While teaching, Jesus was interrupted by "a man with an unclean spirit" (Mark 1:23).[3] The unclean spirit recognizes the power and authority of Jesus and the threat this poses to evil powers: "Have you come to destroy us?" The demon's naming of Jesus may represent its attempt to control Jesus by naming him: "Jesus of Nazareth... I know who you are, the Holy One of God" (Mark 1:24). Ironically, by trying to control Jesus by naming him, the demon speaks the truth about Jesus.

Jesus acts decisively against the evil spirit. He commands it to depart from its host: "Be silent, and come out of him!" (Mark 1:25). With one last fit of violent resistance, the demon throws the man into convulsions, and then departs.

Once again, the people are amazed. They say to one another, "What is this? A new teaching - with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him" (Mark 1:27).

We must not allow the drama of the exorcism to negate the truth it exposes. The congregation's amazed response before and after the exorcism has to do with their awareness that a new authority and great power has come among them in the ministry of Jesus.

The news about Jesus quickly spreads throughout Galilee and its surrounding regions. As Jesus becomes more popular, his message will spread, but resistance to him will also grow, leading to the ultimate crisis of the cross.


What meaning does this ancient text have for us today?

The story communicates that Jesus possesses the authority and power of the kingdom of God. But this authority and power is expressed in a new kind of way.

We are suspicious of authority - and rightly so. We've seen its dark side. We know how it can be used to betray the public trust and how power can be abused for manipulative, self-seeking ends. But Jesus' authority is different. His authority and power arise from God's inbreaking kingdom. Consequently, his authority is used in God's kind of way - in the way of service to others.

Jesus is a king unlike any earthly king. He used his authority not to obtain power for himself but to serve humanity. His freedom to act was exercised for the good of others. His authority brought blessing to people - health, healing, and wholeness.

Later in Mark, Jesus clearly distinguishes the authority and power of God's kingdom from the ways of the world. He tells his disciples, who incidentally, are caught up in a power struggle over who is the greatest,

"You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many." (Mark 10:42-45)

Jesus' new kind of authority brings liberating power - power that opposes the violent and destructive forces of evil. This is represented in the power displayed in Jesus' exorcism and other power encounters in Mark's gospel. Jesus' power did more than heal; it also liberated people from demonic forces of evil that sought to control them from within and without.

Though some moderns have problems entertaining the possibility of angels and demons, the ancient world did not. They believed in the existence of spiritual beings and forces that exerted some level of control over their lives, both from without and within. These spirits "were more powerful than human beings but less powerful than God."[4] By expelling the demon, Jesus proved that he possessed "powers stronger than those of ordinary human beings."

Though some moderns may be uncomfortable with Jesus' exorcism of demons, we must be careful that our discomfort does not cause us to overlook the deeper message of Jesus' liberating power over evil. We moderns certainly "have much more power over [our] lives and circumstances than the ancients believed they had."[5] This explains our "Western tendency to rationalize the ancient understanding of spirits."[6] But in spite of all our scientific sophistication, theologian Fred Craddock has wisely observed that "not believing in demons has hardly eradicated evil in our world."

So even though some may not feel comfortable with the existence of demons, we can all agree in the existence of that which we can label "the demonic" - forces beyond our control that arise from without and within us in order to debase, destroy, and dehumanize. Brendan Byrne offers a great summary of the ancient position and argues why it still offers insight into the human condition:

People in the ancient world generally and the biblical world in particular spoke of demonic possession when they felt themselves held captive from within by forces and compulsions over which they had no control--transpersonal forces that robbed them of freedom of choice, stunted their human growth, and alienated them from God, from life in community, and from their own individual humanity. This sense that the world, including Israel, has fallen under demonic control is pervasive in the horizon of discourse presupposed in Mark's gospel. Its prominence invites interpreters of Mark to relate the liberating activity of Jesus to all the various "captivities"--personal, social, and economic--under which people of our time labor and which they seem powerless to control or escape. The multiple forms of addiction that burden us as individuals and as societies--huge, transpersonal forces that control us and make us their slaves--can be seen as manifestations of the demonic... A healthy spirituality will acknowledge the reality of spiritual forces opposed to God and to life.[7]

Jesus is the great liberator, who frees from various "captivities" - personal and social - under which people feel powerless to control or escape. In the fourth century and beyond, the early desert fathers and mothers retreated into the desert in order to exorcise their "inner demons". This is language we can all relate to. It challenges us to wrestle with evil powers both without and within which resist the authority and power of God, that is, the oppose God's will and refuse to pray, "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done."

The story of Jesus' liberating power invites us to ask the questions: What are the "unclean spirits" that hold many people in bondage today? What captivities - personal, social, and economic - do we feel powerless to control or escape? Where is Jesus' life-giving authority and liberating power most needed? How can we bring the authority and power of Jesus to bear against the powers of darkness, evil, injustice, and inhumanity?

Jesus speaks with authority and power at the point of our deepest need. The kingdom of God comes to liberate us from the destructive and dehumanizing powers of evil.

The story of the healing in the synagogue is not just the story of a healing but is also the story of a battle between the spirit of God (who anointed Jesus) and the spirit of evil. The demon cries out that Jesus has come to destroy it. Jesus has undertaken to destroy the demon before the demon totally destroys the oppressed man. We domesticate the story, calling it a healing story, but it is more than that.[8]

Certainly, we do not want to see demons behind every bush. But we do not want to overreact by failing to recognize that evil powers thwart God's kingdom. There is a spiritual dimension to our world and we are caught up in a conflict between God's kingdom and the powers of evil. Susan Garrett sums it up best: "However we make sense of demons today, the message of the Gospel is that Jesus is Lord: he releases us from all kinds of bondage and empowers us to live a new life in service and in praise of God."[9]

The good news of God's kingdom is that the life-affirming authority of God has come in Christ to liberate us from sin, death, and demonic powers. Jesus' authority comes from God - and not human beings. And Jesus' power brings life, healing, wholeness, and freedom. His authority and power is at the service of justice, peace, and love. It is not self-seeking, but self-giving.

We act in and under the authority of the risen Christ: "All authority has been given to me in heaven and earth. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you" (Matthew 28:18-20). We move in the power of the Spirit, power given in order that we might bring liberation, wholeness, and peace.

But we must not be so naïve to think that our efforts will go unchallenged and unopposed. The forces of evil violently react against God's good kingdom. Unjust authority and abusive power seeks to devour just authority and selfless power.


So what is it? Do we question authority or respect authority? Jesus did both. He questioned the authority of the scribes, and even more, the unjust authority of loveless religion and oppressive empire. However, he was not a man without authority. Jesus fully respected the authority of God. He submitted fully to the will of God and exemplified this by his own use of authority and power.

Jesus both questioned authority and respected authority. He questioned unjust authority and fully surrendered to God's kingdom. Jesus invites us to do the same. We may question authority, but we must also respect authority - God's authority demonstrated in and through Christ Jesus.

[1] Ronald Rolheiser, Secularity and the Gospel: Being Missionaries to Our Children (New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 2006), 62.

[2]  Lamar Williamson, Mark (Louisville, Kentucky: John Knox Press, 1983), 50.

[3] Whether this is a man who walks in from outside the synagogue and disrupts Jesus' teaching, or a well-known individual who is suddenly jolted by the power and authority of Christ, we do not know.

[4] John J. Pilch, The Cultural World of Jesus: Sunday by Sunday, Cycle B (City, Liturgical Press, 1996), 28.

[5] Pilch, Cultural World of Jesus, 30.

[6] Pilch, Cultural World of Jesus, 30.

[7] Brendan Byrne, A Costly Freedom: A Theological Reading of Mark's Gospel (Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2008), xii.

[8] David L. Bartlett, The Christian Century

[9] Susan R. Garrett

© Richard J. Vincent, 2009

Leave a comment