Words on the Word

4. Sunday B

Deuteronomy 18.15-20: The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like myself.
1 Corinthians 7.32-35: To make sure that you give your undivided attention to the Lord.
Mark 1.21-28: He teaches with authority.

In the Gospel, there is no shortage of people who throw their weight about. The question of who may rightfully command attention and obedience looms large. It follows Jesus throughout, variously centred on Herod, Herod’s sons, Pilate, the High Priest, and a few others. One after another these people make their presence felt as if to say, ‘Do you not know who I am?’, expecting to be heeded. They get angry if they’re not. Jesus follows a different path. He is likened to the Spirit-bearing ‘child’ of whom Isaiah spoke. He makes proclamation, yet does not shout. Why is it, then, that Christ made such a powerful impression precisely by his authority?

The word ‘authority’ is key in today’s Gospel. Normally, there are various reasons for according a man or woman authority. One might be their specialist knowledge. In our increasingly complicated world, we exercise such deference all the time. Where would we be without experts? We follow them blindly, too blindly. But this model does not apply to our Gospel. Here, Jesus turns up unasked, uninvited. He has no credentials to show. His background, indeed, speaks against him. ‘Can anything good come out of Galilee?’

Another reason for regarding a person as authoritative is if he or she represents a body we know as deserving of respect. There is a break-down of such authority today, but we remember how it was when policemen, say, or priests and politicians were regarded with spontaneous respect. What we respected was not primarily their persons, but the power vested in them. Yet this model, too, is out of place in our reading of St Mark’s account. Christ speaks for no institution or tradition. His voice is disconcertingly solitary. Nor can we say, in third place, that Jesus impressed by his rhetoric or eloquence. Our text is from the outset of the Gospel. At this point, Christ has made but one public statement: ‘The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the Gospel!’ Those are powerful words, but insufficient, in themselves, to convince and attract. Just think of the marketplace evangelists who stand about shouting them, day in, day out, in our cities and towns, quite unnoticed by the crowds of passing shoppers.
The Jews Jesus addressed will likely have had little Greek. It is doubtful whether Jesus knew that language. Still, the evangelist wrote in Greek. His term for ‘authority’ can help us understand the scene he portrays. The word is exousia. The prefix ex we know from any number of words such as ex-pose, ex-tend, ex-plain etc. It means ‘out of’ or ‘from’. Ousia is an abstract noun derived from the verb ‘to be’. A thing’s ousia is its being, the fact of its existence. So exousia is something that flows from within. It manifests outwardly an inward reality. We possess exousia if there is continuity between what we are and the way we appear. That is what was striking about Jesus. He was whole, true. That is how he could turn lives upside-down by a movement of his little finger, by saying merely, ‘Come’. The disciples were not persuaded to follow. They were drawn by irresistible desire.

We are made for truth. When we perceive it we long to be near it—provided, of course, we have not blunted our perception by illusion, sin, anger, or the ‘deceitfulness of riches’. When Jesus was praised for speaking ‘with authority’, it meant more than just that he practised what he preached. It meant that he was found to be integral. His very presence conveyed a proclamation. In John’s Gospel we hear Christ say, ‘I am the truth’. That is what the people of Capernaum intuited. Their intuition was confirmed by the power Christ wrought. Being light, he drove out the spirit of darkness. People cheered. Only later, as the narrative moves on, is the initial response of the crowd qualified. To follow Truth, we must be true. That involves casting out from our lives all that is un-true. Once we try, we see how hard it is. There is a cool crystal clarity to truth that contrasts with our many cosy compromises. Sin clings closely. We are attached to it. It is easier to pull up the duvet and turn over than to stand wide awake, conscious and answerable. So the crowd, at first so enthused, disperses. In the end, Jesus is left quite alone, to be crucified. It is one thing to admire exousia, to recognise wholeness and to find it attractive. It is another to be re-made in the image of truth.

And we? Will we let God’s power make of us, you and me, men and women ‘of authority’? That is the question facing us today. It is an urgent one. It makes me think of Seraphim of Sarov. People came from all over Russia to ask his advice on personal difficulties. Often, however, pilgrims who had travelled for days, even weeks, had only to set eyes on the saint to receive what they sought, with no words spoken. One man even found Seraphim asleep, yet went away illumined and consoled. Just seeing him, he said, had been enough. That is what it means to enter Christ’s exousia, when every pore of one’s being speaks of Christ and makes him present. It is the way of the saints. It is the way we are called to follow. God can make it happen, but only if we ask him and let him work freely in our lives. We must be willing to let go, once and for all, of all that impedes the work of grace. In a real sense the choice is ours. Do we wish to be healed and made whole? Our answer must be Yes, yes or No, no. There’s no middle ground.