“What is this? A new teaching—with authority!” Jesus was in the synagogue in Capernaum, presumably “going about his Father’s business” (Luke 2:49 NKJV)—teaching—as he had so many years ago in the Temple in Jerusalem. Only this time, he was no longer a twelve-year-old kid. He had grown into a man, a having spent the last eighteen or so years, as Luke wrote, “increasing in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and man” (2:50 NKJV). This piece of Scripture offers us a tantalizing glimpse of the beginning of Jesus’ Galilean ministry, well before that final journey to Jerusalem and the Passion story that would come to define Christian identity for the next two thousand years. Things were simpler then… at least they seemed that way. Mark’s Jesus had arrived on the scene, seemingly out of nowhere, and had been baptized in the Jordan by John, who told his disciples: “This is the guy!” Then a heavenly voice confirmed, “Indeed, this is the guy!” And then off Jesus went into the wilderness for forty days to show Satan that he was, undoubtedly, that guy (cf. Mark 1:1-12 and Matthew 4:1-11). And now, Jesus is back in circulation picking up disciples, talking about the Good News, and the Kingdom… repentance and salvation. Wow.
So… what do you suppose Jesus was teaching about, there in the synagogue in Capernaum? Mark doesn’t tell us, does he? He kind of leaves that to our imagination. What do you suppose? Might Jesus have been teaching about the inerrancy of the Hebrew Bible? Or the superiority of Jewish religious doctrine over that of other faith traditions? Maybe he was schooling his listeners on the importance of becoming economically self-sufficient, so they could pay their Temple tax and not be a burden on society. Perhaps he was preaching about the evils of same-sex relationships and uncontrolled immigration and government-sponsored health insurance. Or not. That might have been the sort of stuff the Jewish scribes were teaching. And that’s what many of us Christians tend to get “wrapped around the axle” about. But what was Jesus teaching about on this day, and in this place?
You know, I can’t tell you for sure, but I can make a pretty good guess… based upon the sorts of things Jesus talked about throughout all of the gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. I bet Jesus was talking about love. Loving God and loving your neighbor… and all of the stuff that goes along with that: Honoring God and welcoming strangers made in God’s image. Helping those on the margins of society, providing food and drink and clothing to those who are in need. Providing hope to those who are sick and suffering in body, mind and spirit. Loving others as God loves us. And Jesus taught as one with authority. What does that mean? It means, I think, that Jesus’ words touched his listeners in a way that no priest or Doctor of the Law had ever done. Because, through Jesus, the Kingdom of God had come near. God’s eternal Word had come near. And those gathered round listening to Jesus understood that this was something new… something never experienced by anyone in living memory. Not since God had given Moses and the people the Ten Commandments from atop Mount Sinai. This was a new teaching… and an old teaching. The principle upon which all Creation was founded. Love.
And Jesus spoke with authority… with a capital “A.” But there are other authorities in the world, aren’t there. Back in Jesus’ time, as in our own, there are civil authorities and religious authorities, family authorities and even private, personal authorities: those things that we allow to control and influence the way we think and behave. Maybe wealth and status have “authority” over what we do and how we do it. Maybe various “shoulds and oughts” associated with being a good employee or spouse, sibling or child exercise a degree of “authority” over our daily routines. Maybe we’ve given certain substances… or habits… authority in our lives. Perhaps you can imagine some of the sorts of things I’m talking about.
The man with the unclean spirit definitely got it. And here’s the thing, don’t be thinking of the “man with the unclean spirit” as some drooling madman lurching around the synagogue grounds, spoiling for a fight. Such a one would have never been allowed to cross the threshold of the synagogue. I’m pretty sure that the man with the unclean spirit looked a lot like you and me. The uncleanliness of his spirit had less to do with his outward appearance and behavior as it did with the inward things to which he had given authority in his life. Things that were not of God. “What have you to do with us Jesus of Nazareth?” he said. “What, indeed?” Jesus may have replied. “Have you come to destroy us?” “Yeah, pretty much,” said Jesus. “I know who you are…” “Well then, you know what to do: Hasta la vista, unclean spirit.” And boom! The man was free of all of the “little ‘a’ authorities” that had dogged his existence for who knows how long. We should all be so lucky, right? How often have we prayed to be rid of worldly aspirations… and appetites… that keep us from living more fully into God’s plan for our lives. Probably plenty often… because, you see, we’re not bad people. We want to do the right thing… we want to be right with God. But we sometimes hesitate to love. We sometimes forget that we were made to bring about God’s Kingdom by bringing love and hope to the least of these… sometimes at our own expense… even sacrificially. Because loving God and neighbor isn’t easy. It’s counter to everything the world teaches us brick by brick, blow by blow, from the time we’re born until the time we, well… figure it out. However long that takes.
So, here’s the takeaway: Jesus can relieve us of our unclean spirits, but it won’t be all “pony rides and balloons.” In our Gospel story today, when the man in the synagogue was redeemed from all of his unclean, “little ‘a’ authorities,” he convulsed… doubled over… fell on the ground… felt as if he was being turned inside out, as the devil within him writhed and screamed and, finally… turned him loose. It was as if the man was giving up a part of himself. And he was. But it wasn’t the best part, the holy part. It was the part that was not of God. And the man was better off without it… but it was so hard.
And it will be hard for each of us to give up the worldly authorities to which we cling so tightly and live into the “Kingdom purpose” that God has in store for us. Our earthly vision may tell us that giving in to God is foolish… that nothing will come of it but disappointment and resentment and unease. But I offer you a different vision of what it means to give in to God and God’s plan for your life. It comes in the form of a rather strange series of blessings written by Benedictine Sister Ruth Marlene Fox, of the Sacred Heart Monastery in Dickinson, North Dakota. It’s a call to love and a call to action… so you better look out! But it’s what you signed up for when you decided to follow the Way of Jesus. And so, to you, my brothers and sisters in the Faith…
✞ May God bless you with discomfort at easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships… so that you may live deep within your heart.
✞ May God bless you with anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people… so that you may work for justice, freedom and peace.
✞ May God bless you with tears to shed for those who suffer pain, rejection, hunger and war… so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and turn their pain to joy.
✞ And may God bless you with just enough foolishness to believe that you can make a difference in the world… so that you can do what others claim cannot be done: to bring justice and kindness to all of our children and to the poor in body, mind and spirit. Amen.