It’s tempting to want to know just what exactly Jesus said at this synagogue in Capernaum. What does this “teaching with authority” sound like?
Often I hear people try to fill in that gap with some explanation about Jesus’s style or content. But the evangelist’s silence on this point is important. He did not just forget to mention what Jesus said or overlook our interest in his tone of voice, gestures, rhetorical tools. He didn’t include those details because they are not what we need to know. What we need to know about Jesus is that he is, as the unclean spirit says, the Holy One of God. Jesus teaches with authority because he is the authority, Emmanuel, God with us.
So the question we should ask when Mark writes that people heard Jesus’ teaching to be “with authority” is not “How did he do it?” but “Who is he?”
We who know the end of Mark’s gospel know who he is: the God who emptied out divinity, who became family to us, who lives with us as teacher, healer, companion, who forgives even when he is rejected and killed, who forgives so fully that he returns to be with us, faithfully, continually, to the end of the age. That’s his authority: he is the God who is madly, absurdly, unreasonably in love with humanity.
This puts us in an uncomfortable position. We can usually, if we need to, displace those who claim authority based on knowledge or skill or some legal process. We just prove the claim is false, that they’re wrong, and we don’t have to respond to their call anymore. But how do you challenge the authority of one whose only authority is relinquishing power for the sake of love? No wonder people either left all to follow Jesus or plotted his death. Accepting the authority of one who gives everything for you requires giving everything you have. This “authority” is an invitation to fall madly in love.
When we want to know what “teaching with authority” sounded like, are we really hoping we can figure out how to do it ourselves? It’s a very appealing idea. Wouldn’t it be great to speak so that everyone else would listen, for a change? Evidently the Corinthians were struggling with this, some of them wanting to speak authoritatively out of their knowledge to settle matters for everyone. But everyone wasn’t ready to have matters settled, and Paul makes his case clear:
Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.
Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge;
but anyone who loves God is known by him.
I like to imagine Paul chewing his pen as he works on that last line. The first two came easy enough, and he’s about to write, “But anyone who loves God does know him.” But then he stops. The “strong” among the Corinthians will just run with that, sure that they love and therefore have knowledge, and the end of the story will still be that they are in the same spot as before, using Jesus to justify their own power over others.
So, very carefully, Paul writes that peculiar third line: for those who love God, what matters is that God knows them, not that they know the answers. Stop trying to figure out how to be the authority. Start accepting the authority of the God who does not abandon us. Then begin to bear with one another, as you are, in love, instead of looking for ways to control each other. Your God is madly in love with you. That is a fearsome thing, an astonishing authority, and our gift of wisdom is falling right back as madly in love as we can manage.