Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Albeit in different ways, each of this week’s texts (save perhaps the Psalm) has to do with power and its potential or actual social effects.
Although I am expert neither in social theory nor its criticism, one thing I do recall from my relatively scant reading in those fields is that power is an ineliminable aspect of all human associations, from the most intimate interpersonal relationships to the most impersonal institutional arrangements. Those who possess power are reluctant to surrender it, for it confers upon them the kinds of advantages that come from the capacity to control others in the service of more or (often) less noble ends. Where institutions are concerned, power can be especially problematic, for although they are necessary to the achievement of legitimate social ends, institutions tend inevitably to adopt as their chief end the preservation and expansion of whatever power they have come to possess.
As a theologian, I appreciate the insights of social criticism but understand power just a bit differently. True power belongs to and comes from the triune God, who wields it neither capriciously nor arbitrarily, but always for the ultimate good of his beloved Creation.
Such earthly power as is wielded by persons and institutions is either given by and utilized on behalf of God and his liberating redemptive work or is a self-interested, idolatrous facsimile of the real thing. Augustine called the latter libido dominandi – the “desire to dominate,” to control and use others to one’s own advantage – and argued that it pervaded the brokenness of creatures alienated from their true end.
This week’s gospel lesson from the first chapter of Mark offers an interesting juxtaposition of the aforementioned types of power. Having recently begun his public life by proclaiming that the long-awaited eschatological reign of God had finally come (vv. 14-15), Jesus and his newly called disciples entered the synagogue at Capernaum, the town which would become his base of operations in Galilee.
When Jesus taught those gathered for worship, Mark reports that the members of the congregation were astounded by what he said, “for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes” (v. 22). The Greek word translated here as “authority,” exousia, is in fact a kind of power, specifically the power to rule or govern. In light of Jesus’s earlier proclamation of the arrival of God’s basileia and his exorcism of the unclean spirit possessing one of the men in the synagogue (vv. 23-26), the implication is clear: Jesus himself is not simply the commissioned messenger of the now-present and yet-coming kingdom, but its very presence. His exousia, demonstrated both by his extraordinary mastery of scripture and his authority over the unclean spirit, is the real deal, clearly conferred by God.
It is this insight that leads the reader to understand what Mark is getting at in his contrast of Jesus’s exousia with the teaching of the scribes. The scribes were educated scholars, experts on the law who represented the Temple hierarchy in Jerusalem to the Am ha-aretz, the “people of the land” who inhabited the hinterlands. By the time Jesus began his public life as a prophet of the kingdom, the Temple had become not simply the center of Jewish cultic life, but a locus of conservative political power, as well.
Some scholars have argued that the “rulers of the Temple,” wealthy elites who had a stake in the preservation of order and the status quo, had become de facto collaborators with the Romans who occupied and controlled most of the known world. One could well imagine if this were indeed the case that their representatives to the provinces might be known to the people merely as dispensers of domesticated pietistic niceties that included admonitions to submit to their alleged benefactors in Jerusalem.
It is little wonder, then, that the people were “astounded” by Jesus, who spoke with exousia of the imminent reign of a God who was anything but domesticated: a God who liberated Israel from bondage “with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders” (Deut. 26:8); a God who spoke through the prophets of the centrality of justice and mercy to the common life of his people and who promised those people a Messiah who “with justice… shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth” (Is. 11:4); a God who “raises up the poor from the dust” and “lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor” (1 Sam. 2:8, cf. Luke 1:51-53).
The people of Capernaum, downtrodden and marginalized by oppressive Roman rule and tired of hearing from ineffectual religious leaders who failed to give them any real hope would surely have heard the words and seen the actions of Jesus as gospel.
Gospel, yes, but also a direct challenge to the rulers whose supposed authority he so frequently challenged. It is hardly surprising that when Jesus entered Jerusalem by enacting messianic prophecy and then went directly to the Temple to throw down the gauntlet before its leaders, they responded by leading the way in arranging his execution for sedition.
Yet even there the contrast between genuine and ersatz power is made perfectly clear, for when the disciples, led by Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome visited the tomb early on the third day, they found an empty tomb and a resurrected Lord. The power of God had been manifested again, proving itself greater even than the “power” of death.