Teaching With Authority

In today’s Gospel from St. Mark, Jesus heals a man with an unclean spirit. The people “were amazed and asked one another, ‘What is this? A new teaching with authority.'” Earlier in this passage and again in others, we hear expressed, in one way or the other, the idea that Jesus taught with authority; I’ve commented on such passages before.

Authority is a word many of us have difficulty with. We are suspicious of others telling us what we have to do (or believe). When I was a law student, I had a sign over my office door that read “Question Authority,” which expressed well my view…then and now.

In talking about belief in “Our Lord” Jesus Christ in her book In Search of Belief, Joan Chittister helpfully distinguishes between “the personal authority of Jesus” and “the official authority of the systems around him.” The latter had to do with “the trappings of power, the oppression of the powerful, the favoring of institutional control over the need of [individuals].” Jesus, in contrast, “governed no one” and “enriched everyone.” Chittister writes

The personal authority of Jesus far outweighed the official authority of the systems arounds him. He wore no phylacteries. He rode on donkeys. He held no positions. And he listened to everyone. He listened to blind beggars and foreign soldiers and small children and contentious Pharisees and homorrhaging women. His only rules were love. He went about forgiving sins and curing ills and confronting the legalisms of the institutions so that people could be free. He preached that when mercy and peace and compassion and justice set into a people, that the kingdom of God broke into their lives at the same time. And the followed him from one end of the country to the other in droves. He was the Lord without lordliness. No chains, no miters, no thrones, no public relations advisors. He lorded it over no one. He died on a cross and compelled an empire.

The personal authority of Jesus is one I can accept without the hesitations that the word “authority” tend to raise in me. It is an authority I can be moved by. Something I can follow from one end of the world to another.