Monday, January 30, 2006

Jesus vs. the Religious Experts

They were astounded at [Jesus'] teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Mark 1:22

Jesus exemplifies authentic spiritual teaching, and the people are astounded. Unlike the scribes, the religious experts, who cite precedent and legitimate their teaching through a reverent and sometimes convoluted interpretation of tradition, Jesus speaks plainly and directly. He knows the tradition as well as anybody, but unlike the religious experts who want to police the boundaries, Jesus acts to break them open. The experts focus on the past. Jesus focuses on the present.

Jesus teaches with “authority” according to Mark’s Gospel. The Greek word translated as “authority” is exousia: literally, “out of being.” Jesus taught out of the depths of his being, not by quoting texts (although he can quote the sacred texts when it suits him). His authority was rooted in holiness, a profoundly unifying experience of divine love that welled up from the depths of his being. But exousia is also related to the Greek word existen, meaning “it is free” or “it is permitted.” He taught with freedom, with a sense of legitimacy rooted in his relationship with God. The experts’ teaching is theoretical and confining, while Jesus’ teaching is experiential and expansive.

This all becomes clear in the healing of the man with an unclean spirit. Jesus enacts his teaching now, he lives the truth that he proclaims in the present moment. The story begins with Jesus teaching in the synagogue. Note here that synagogue does not refer to a building; most likely the people gathered outdoors in the center of town for worship. It is this gathering of the community that is synagogue; not a building.

Jesus astounds the synagogue with the authority of his teaching, the authenticity and freedom with which he teaches. This is demonstrated by his response to the man with an unclean spirit. Now the scribes, the religious experts, citing precedent and invoking the weight of tradition, would have demanded that the man be thrown out of the synagogue. The presence of this unclean spirit threatened the purity of the community, compromising its integrity. The fact that the unclean spirit recognizes the holiness of Jesus would only further justify the experts’ concern, for surely the witness of the demon could only serve to underscore that Jesus’ teaching is itself demonic, a departure from received truth that would only confuse and lead the people astray.

And so the conflict is heightened: is the spiritual authority of Jesus legitimate, or not? How do we know: by conformity to sacred text and traditional interpretation, or by some other criteria? Jesus further confounds the situation by casting out the unclean spirit and commanding its silence, even though it has spoken the truth about Jesus’ identity. Jesus reveals an astonishing freedom with respect both to received tradition and to the demonic. What is going on here?

This story of healing demonstrates that love is the mark of authentic spiritual teaching, for even the Devil can quote Scripture. “Jesus will not abide the dominion of that which defaces the dignity of the image of God, even when it wears the mask of piety.”[1] He is more concerned with restoring this poor man to human community, than with the correctness of the demon’s (or the religious experts’) theological convictions. Jesus chooses love and restores the man and the synagogue to the possibility of experiencing joy again. It is his remarkable freedom to redraw the circle of love so as to include the man with the unclean spirit in the community that sets Jesus apart from the religious experts.

The religious experts want to control access to God, and the demons want to subvert it. Both can quote Scripture to serve their own purposes, but that proves nothing. We can quote Scripture, repeat the Nicene Creed, brandish our orthodox credentials until we are blue in the face, but it means nothing if we fail to love people in such a way as to affirm their human dignity and include them as members of the community.

This is a story of healing, but it is the synagogue much more than the man with the unclean spirit that is healed, by being restored to its purpose of enhancing, rather than restricting, access to God. Today, the Church badly needs such healing, as much or more than the outcasts of our own time and place. The Church, the people of God gathered for worship, realizes its true purpose only to the degree that we reject the invidious distinction between clean and unclean. The religious experts and the demons need each other; they are but the flip side of each other in their determination to constrain access to God.

Jesus models a very different kind of teaching, where spiritual authority is placed in the service of healing rather than division. Jesus demonstrates the authority of his teaching, not by setting himself apart from others, but by setting people free to experience God’s love directly for themselves. He breaks down the barriers that separate people from God and from participation in the community gathered to worship God.

[1] Theodore Jennings, The Insurrection of the Crucified: The “Gospel of Mark” as Theological Manifesto (Chicago: Exploration Press, 2003), p. 25.

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