Oh to have been a fly on the wall of that synagogue in Capurnaum. Some sermons ought never to be recorded for posterity, but this one should have been!
They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority.
And again: They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching – with authority!”
Notions of, metaphors of authority are very difficult to pin down. It’s fair to say that we all recognize authority, but when it comes to describing exactly what it is we find it very difficult.
Perhaps a weakness we share from time to time is confusing authority with rank or office. When a naval chaplain I would occasionally preach this message to congregations that included admirals – and always took delight in ruffling their feathers. I would ask questions such as: When a ship’s weapon is broken, who has the greater authority? The Commander who gives the order to repair, or the Petty Officer who knows how to swiftly and effectively carry out that repair?
Shortly before I was ordained I was taught that as a priest I would have the gift of authority. This was to trouble me for many years, as I have not at any time in my ministry felt authoritative, but came to understand it as an authority bound up with celebration of the sacraments and the sharing of those sacraments with the people.
That’s not to say that some clergy don’t like to play the game of rank. The sub-culture of self-importance (more than) occasionally raises its head within the Episcopal Church and the wider Anglican tradition. It was an English Bishop of Worcester who, in my father's study, was heard to say, “The Duke of Edinburgh and I both agree that we dislike name-droppers.”
And a few years ago a couple wished to celebrate their marriage vows in a prominent Manhattan church, and requested of that church that I preside over that celebration. The request was denied, because, in their own words, “We do not entertain provincial clergy.”
True authority remains elusive. A story goes that Queen Victoria and her husband, Prince Albert, once had a major argument. Albert stormed out of the room and went to his private quarters. Victoria followed, found the door locked, and began pounding on it. “Who’s there?” Prince Albert asked. “The Queen of England,” was the reply. But the door remained locked. More pounding followed, but then silence. The next sound was that of a gently tap. “Who’s there?” Albert inquired. The Queen replied: “Your wife.” Prince Albert opened the door immediately.
Jesus taught them as one having authority.
What does this mean, and why were the people astounded?
Well, small amounts of anecdotal humor may teach us a few things, but when it came to the religious leaders and teachers of faith in the time of Jesus there was little reason for the people to smile.
From the corrupt High Priest and his entourage, to the scribes and most of, but not all of the Pharisees, the religious life of Israel was asleep. Rituals continued on high days and holy days, of course, and the Sabbath observance was a part of the rhythm of weekly life, but there was no energy. No dynamism. No voice that echoed the radicalism and power of the Hebrew prophets of old.
Until that Sabbath day in Capernaum, that is.
But it was not only on that occasion. Wherever he went, from Galilee to Samaria, and all the way to Jerusalem, Jesus woke up the people by his teachings. And the people recognized in him that authority that had been missing for generations, and which their settled religious leaders and teachers did not have.
It is a divine gift that we have many of those words – many of that teaching. Witnesses passed them on. People remembered them. Writers put them on pages. And that is good news for us. Literally good news, for it is Gospel.
There have got to be moments in the lives of every single one of us when faith and belief seems dry, routine, unexciting, empty. (How many negative adjectives do we need?) And although it’s not a panacea for all spiritual ills and doubts, I recommend that we return again and again to the words of Jesus.
And to approach them with an open mind and heart, leaving our personal baggage behind. Hear them afresh – and allow them to address us.
In a time and society where there appears to be no clearly-defined voice of authority, and where so many people rail against the very notion of authority, the teachings of Jesus remain. And they continue to astound!