The word for today is Authority. It appears twice in the Gospel and we find evidence of it in the other two readings. You may remember that the scribes and the Pharisees questioned Jesus quite a bit about his authority. Questions like, “By what authority do you cast out demons?” or “By what authority do you heal on the Sabbath?”
Jesus’ authority is an important part of who Jesus is and so, as part of our Epiphany sermons, we hear about Jesus’ authority, what it is and where it comes from.
Let’s begin. The disciples went to Capernaum; and when the Sabbath came, Jesus entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.
What does it mean, in this case, to teach as one having authority? First of all, Jesus is compared to the scribes, who were the professional teachers of the law. The scribes had studied the scriptures all their lives and they knew the law off by heart. They could discuss all sorts of minor points of the law and they could explain exactly why this law said this and the other law said that. Their knowledge was very impressive, and it still is. There are very few scholars who have a depth of knowledge which can be compared to the scribes.
So, how did Jesus astound the crowds, why did they proclaim his authority? We find an answer in the book of Deuteronomy which we read earlier. The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “I will raise up for my people a prophet like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything I command.”
Jesus is obviously a prophet, speaking the words of the Lord God to the people of Israel. There were other prophets, like Isaiah and Jeremiah, Jonah and Malachi, and these spoke the words that the Lord God had authorised them to say. And in Capernaum synagogue, Jesus was speaking the words God had authorised him to say. He was teaching with God’s authority and that’s why the people were so impressed. This person was speaking to them words of wisdom and truth and love which could only have come from God.
Next Mark tells us the story of the man with an unclean spirit. Jesus was teaching with God’s authority and the man 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.”
As soon as Jesus began to teach, the unclean spirit recognised him. The unclean spirit knew exactly who was speaking, Jesus of Nazareth, the Holy One of God. And the unclean spirit knew that Jesus had God’s authority to act. The spirit said, “Have you come to destroy us?” because it knew that Jesus had the authority to use God’s power to destroy evil.
Jesus’ answer is very interesting, “Be silent, and come out of him.” Jesus knew that he had power over this unclean spirit. He was able to command and the spirit had to obey.
This shows another meaning of authority. Not only did Jesus have the authority of God’s wisdom; he also had the authority of God’s power. On this, the fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, God’s wisdom and power is revealed in Jesus Christ.
But St Paul also has some interesting things to say about authority. In his letter to the Corinthian Christians he is trying to answer their question about eating food sacrificed to idols. The Corinthians have a lot of knowledge about their faith and they know that “no idol in the world really exists” and “there is no God but one.” So food sacrificed to idols is just ordinary food and it’s perfectly okay to eat it. The Corinthians know that idols have no power either to bless or curse. It is pointless to worry because “Food will not bring us closer to God.”
But Paul warns them about overconfidence. They thought they were so clever, because they had the knowledge. They saw no harm in eating food sacrificed to idols because idols are nothing. But what about those people who still believe that idols have power? These people have given authority to the idols to have power over them; just as the unclean spirit gave authority to Jesus to have power over it.
St Paul urges the Corinthian Christians to have nothing to do with idols or food offered to them, so that those who are weak in faith will see and understand that idols have no authority, no ability to do anything.
So there are three things we learn about Jesus in this reading from St Mark’s gospel. Firstly, God is the authority by whom Jesus Christ speaks and acts. Secondly, the listeners in the synagogue in Capernaum and the unclean spirit give Jesus power over them when they recognise his authority. To the listeners he has the power to become their saviour while the unclean spirit’s power is broken by the authority of Jesus.