A friend became a pastor after a previous career in advertising. He used to explain that folks working in advertising get paid to make people believe they need certain products to be happy, make them believe their life is incomplete without this or that deodorant or breakfast cereal. When my friend began to realize how shallow and fake the authority of the advertising industry is, he knew it was time to get out. He was ready to become a mouthpiece for God’s authority revealed in Jesus.
Today’s readings, especially in Deuteronomy and Mark’s gospel, are all about authority. How do we recognize God’s authority in those who speak in God’s name? How do we evaluate God’s guidance in the events of our lives? How do we heed the authority of our leaders, both religious and secular? What is the difference in authority between the speech of a politician, the commercial for a brand new truck, and the casting out of the evil spirit in Mark’s gospel?
The evil spirit in today’s gospel knows that difference all too well. Before Jesus speaks a word, the demon smells an eviction notice when he screeches in fear: “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?”
Conflict abounds, and things move swiftly. Mark loses no time; words like “immediately,” “at once,” “just than” appear 10 times in that first chapter of his gospel. Divine authority, when encountered, is compelling and leaves no doubt. It is peculiar, though, that the demon has no trouble recognizing Jesus when even the disciples had trouble recognizing who Jesus really was. It is also peculiar that the conflict between good and evil, between Jesus and the demon, takes place in the synagogue, the sacred space reserved for worship.
There were lots of professional exorcists in Mark’s time advertising their expertise in casting out demons. That is really no different from today: walk through the self-help and spirituality section in any bookstore and we find gurus galore. They all promise to help us with our problems and compulsions, our hang-ups and conflicts. While some of these can be most helpful, none have divine authority as Jesus does, so what sets his authority apart from all others?
Contrast Jesus’ teaching with that of the scribes. The scribes’ teaching authority is derived from their knowledge of and allegiance to tradition. However, Jesus teaches with an independent authority — or rather, the authority of God (cf. 11:28-33). Whereas the scribes are bound to tradition, Jesus is relatively free — free in the way that only one who lives directly from and in God’s authority is free. Jesus’ authority comes from the integrity of his own person. Where both Rome and the religious leadership of Israel used their authority as a dominant “power over” authority, Jesus uses his authority to empower others through liberating them and serving them.
His authority lies in the sheer power of his words and in the example of his deeds. His authority resides in his living as God’s servant. Jesus used his authority not to obtain power for himself but to serve humanity (Mark 10:41-45). Jesus’ acting in authority brought blessings to people — health and healing (1:23-28). His authority possessed an irresistible power that drew people not through manipulation, but simply by the truth and integrity of his person and the gifts of God he shared with everyone regardless of status, gender or ethnic origin. Jesus doesn’t just preach a message. He embodies the message — because he “walks the talk” he is the Way, the Truth and the Life. This claim to divine authority was anything but obvious, however. While the ordinary folk felt drawn to him and felt safe with him, to his opponents, especially those invested with authority, Jesus was a blasphemer.
The authority of Jesus is collaborative and shared. Although his authority is grounded in his divine freedom, Jesus willingly gives up this freedom in order to bring freedom and life to others, even to the point where it cost him his life.
How we exercise authority is a crucial challenge, especially for Christians. Power dynamics play daily in every family and organization, every community and nation. Every person exerts authority in some way, however small, even if it is only over ourselves. The challenge of Christ’s message and example is to embrace a way of “doing authority” that is completely different from that of human systems. Jesus’ type of authority is derived not from climbing ladders of earthly power, or from violently imposing it on others, but from submitting to the purposes and values of God’s reign, to the point of giving up our lives.
This involves rejecting temptations to cling to power or aspire to careerism at the expense of others. Instead, the one who lived God’s authority in the flesh calls us through compassion and mercy to exercise authority as service in order to build a collaborative community. It involves refusing to buy into any perks that may come with outward authority, but to discover our true authority from within by living with radical integrity and with joy. In that spirit, it would behoove all of us to re-read Pope Francis’ latest Christmas message to the Roman Curia in which he lists 15 spiritual diseases all of us are prone to, especially when enjoying positions of power and authority.
The most challenging and transforming call of Christ, therefore, is to learn to give up our own freedom and power for the sake of others. When we, like Christ, are committed to laying down our lives for the liberation and healing of others, then, and only then, can we begin to claim any small portion of the authority of Jesus.
Ternier-Gommers, wife, mother and grandmother, is a retreat leader and spiritual director, freelance writer and author of two books. She has worked in diocesan and parish ministry, in ecumenical dialogues and ministry, and co-ordinates an ecumenical network of women in ministry. Visit her website at www.prairie-encounters.ca and her blog at https://graceatsixty.wordpress.com