The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet lie me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet. This is what you requested of the Lord your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly when you said: "If I hear the voice of the Lord my God any more, or ever again see this great fire, I will die." Then the Lord replied to me: "They are right in what they have said. I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command. Anyone who does not heed the words that the prophet shall speak in my name, I myself will hold accountable. But any prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, or who presumes to speak in my name a word that I have not commanded the prophet to speak-that prophet shall die."
I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; but the married man is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried woman or girl is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit; but the married woman is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please her husband. I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord.
They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, "What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God." But Jesus rebuked him, saying, "Be silent, and come out of him!" And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him.
They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, "What is this? A new teaching-with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him." At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.
Up to about half a century ago, Catholics were regularly assured that God's will for our faith and conduct was channeled to us through Pope and bishops, with the teaching authority given them by Christ himself. Papal infallibility was solemnly proclaimed in 1869, and stressed the principle of authority so strongly as to leave little room to make up one's own mind on issues of faith or morals. If arguments arose, we could expect a statement from the Magisterium to put the issue beyond doubt. Recently, a much lower respect for Church authority is palpable. Some welcome this greater freedom for individual conscience, while others long for a return to the clear dogmatic stance of the past, defined and unquestionable. Perhaps we can get some light from today's Gospel, where Jesus "teaches with authority, and not as their scribes."
Our imagery about God comes to us primarily from Jesus, the Word of God, who makes the Father known to us. If we pay attention to his gospel read at Mass, or give time to the private reading of holy scripture, the main lines of Our Lord's teaching will be clear enough. Apart from reading or hearing the word of the Gospel, we have the prompting and guidance of Christ's Spirit, if we take time to pray, reflect and let our conscience come awake in God's presence. And finally, to help us apply the message of Jesus to definite areas in our lives, we have the teaching ministry of the Church. The only valid purpose of authority among Christians is to keep the Lord's word alive in the community, to keep us reminded of what Jesus said, and still says, to us his followers. God knows, we need such a reminder often enough, due to the slump-factor in all of us, tending to lower our ideals, and cool our devotion. We're often like a flock of straying sheep, needing the care of alert shepherds to hold us together, and keep us moving on the upward path. Yet, after listening with respect to what our leaders say – whether it be the Pope and bishops, or more locally the parish clergy – each adult Christian must look into his or her conscience, to blend the official teaching into our personal faith in God.
Until the recent past, many worried about an excessive dogmatism coming from Rome, seeking to stretch of the extent of defined doctrine. Surely it is right to expect our leaders to ground their teaching in the well-springs of the Gospel. Yet somehow, beyond and beneath all authority in the Church, and permeating it with vitality, is the prophetic authority of Christ himself, who is the Way, the Truth and the Life. Through him, in faith and loyalty, we can know with certainty what God the Father expects of us, and what we must do in order to gain eternal life. Just one thing is needed: to be willing to undertake whatever he shows us, no matter how difficult. If Christ is God's fullest Word to us, we can have no reserves about doing what he says.
We have all had teachers in the course of our lives, at primary school, at secondary school, at third level or in other less formal educational contexts. Some of those teachers we might prefer to forget, but others we remember with great fondness. Some of them had a significant influence for good on us. They inspired us with a love for the subject that they taught and we may have gone on to study it ourselves. They shared some expertise with us and encouraged us to head off in a direction of our own. In today's gospel the people of Capernaum recognize Jesus who had come to their synagogue as a teacher, and not just another teacher but a teacher who was very different to the teachers they had grown used to, the scribes, the experts in the Jewish Law. His teaching, we are told, 'made a deep impression on people, because, unlike the scribes, he taught them with authority.' The people in the synagogue exclaimed, 'Here is a teaching that is new and with authority behind it.' This journey of Jesus to the synagogue where he taught with authority and healed a man with an unclean spirit is the first public act of Jesus in Mark's gospel. According to Mark, Jesus first appeared on the scene as an authoritative teacher, as someone whose teaching, whose word, could deliver people from their demons, from the forces that were oppressing them and leaving them diminished as human beings.
Jesus was recognized as someone who taught with authority. The word 'authority' has received a rather negative press in recent times. Various 'authority figures' have been criticized, often with good reason. Yet, in Jesus people experienced an authority that they found attractive, an authority that, in the words of the gospel, left them so astonished that they started asking each other what it all meant. Jesus was recognized as a person of authority because of the word that he spoke and the impact for good of that word on others. Ultimately, his authority was rooted in God, in the Spirit of God that descended upon him at his baptism. The first public words he spoke after his baptism were, 'the reign of God, the power of God, is at hand.' God's life-giving, liberating power was working through him, and, so, he was recognized by others as authoritative. The power of God's love working through him gave him that authority which people found so attractive and so new.
Jesus defines authority as the exercise of God's life-giving and liberating power, the power that raises the lowly and fills the hungry with good things, that includes within the community those who have been living on the edge, the power that forgives those who have done nothing to deserve forgiveness. This is the power of the good Samaritan who took care of his fellow traveller even though he was a Jew; it is the power of the Father who welcomed his returning son, the prodigal, who had messed up; it is the power of the widow who in giving two copper coins to the temple treasury gave everything she had. Within the gospel's vision of life, these are the exercises of power that confer authority. Not all power is worthy of being recognized as authoritative. The imposing figure of G.K. Chesterton, the English writer and wit, was, apparently often seen squeezed behind a table in London restaurants. During one of his literary lunches, Chesterton was expounding on the relationship between power and authority. He described the difference in these terms: 'If a rhinoceros were to enter the restaurant now, there is no denying he would have great power here, but I should be the first to rise and assure him that he had no authority whatever.'
For us as Christians, Jesus remains the ultimate authority. Like the people of Capernaum, we recognize his authority, the authority of his teaching and his deeds, the authority of his life, death and resurrection. That is why we confess Jesus not just as our teacher but as our Lord. We are happy to submit to his authority, to his lordship, because we recognize that in doing so we will have life to the full, and, like the man in the gospel, be freed of those spirits that prevent us from becoming the person God intends us to be. There can be great reluctance today to submit to anyone. The value of personal autonomy is highly prized and sought after. Yet, it is not possible to live without submitting to some authority even if it is the authority of the self. What matters is to submit to the right authority and this morning's gospel suggests that such authority is to be found in the person of Jesus. [Martin Hogan]
A lovely line in the Book of Psalms says: 'The earth is full of the goodness of the Lord' (33:5). It certainly is. The crops keep producing food for our tables. The summer heat gives way to cooling autumn breezes. Most diseases are now curable. Tyrants are sometimes overthrown. Social reforms like pensions for the needy are here to stay. Conflicts end in reconciliation. Shaky marriages get patched up. Love survives misunderstandings, thoughtlessness, insults and indifference. Wars come to an end. Enemies become friends. We forgive others and are forgiven. Sport keeps contributing to what is good, decent, and noble about human beings. A rare example of exceptional goodness is a prayer scrawled on a piece of wrapping paper found at the Nazi Concentration Camp at Ravensbruck:
Lord, remember not only the men and women of good will but all those of ill-will. Do not only remember the suffering they have subjected us to. Remember the fruits we brought forth thanks to this suffering – our comradeship, our loyalty, our humility, our courage and generosity, the greatness of heart that all of this inspired. And when they come to judgement, let all these fruits we have borne be their reward and their forgiveness. [A. de Mello]
In short, there is goodness everywhere. But where there is goodness, there too is God and the Kingdom of God. So, God's loving rule is still happening among us.
But so too is the anti-kingdom of evil. Its power and force keeps staring us in the face. Newspapers and news bulletins report it daily in its ugly manifestations. Our own consciences remind us of its hurtful and harmful influence. It has been reliably reported last week, for instance, that 1% of the world's population now owns half of the world's wealth. Too many persons work for less than a dollar a day, and others are denied health and safety precautions. Random acts of terrorism are inflicted on defenceless people. Refugees exercising their legal rights to seek asylum are visited with systematic acts of cruelty as deterrents to others. Persons are being kidnapped and sold into slavery, including sexual degradation. Racism, consumerism, and devastation of the earth's natural resources are still raging round the world. In many parts of the world large segments of the population are involved in unrest and civil war. Violence is growing. Individuals, high on drugs, smash their targets to the ground. What we are facing, then, are both the evil acts of individuals and evil social structures.
In the days of Jesus on earth, people called different evil forces 'demons'. Jesus himself recognised one super-force behind them all. He named it 'the EVIL ONE', also known in his day as 'the Devil', 'Lucifer', and 'Beelzebub'. Today's gospel is a striking example of his confrontation with, and victory over, the 'the Evil One'. As the story has it, 'the Evil One' has taken possession of a deranged man, who interrupts Jesus as he teaches and challenges his power and authority over evil. Jesus does not answer the man's taunts, but addresses 'the Evil One' sharply and directly: 'Be quiet! Come out of him!' Throwing the sufferer into convulsions, and with a last loud scream, 'the Evil One' wriggles out of him. At long last its victim is free from its torments.
More recently if less dramatically, followers of Jesus in a particular parish chased evil from a disturbed man at Sunday Mass. From the back of the church he kept repeating the Mass parts after the priest, softly at first but gradually more loudly and belligerently, with profanities and mockery thrown in. Although the man was clearly odd, people began to feel offended and angry. Then something wonderful happened. At the Sign of Peace, a woman left her pew and extended her hand to the man. He took it, and then another person appeared behind the woman, then another. Soon dozens gathered to offer peace to the troubled intruder, and then the man began to weep openly. When he sat down, a small child, touched by his tears, climbed on to his lap. The Mass continued and the poor man never spoke another word.