31 August 2010Luke 4:31-37
"They were astounded at his teaching, because he spoke with authority." (v.32)
The events of this passage take place in Capernaum, a lakeside
city in Galilee, which Jesus may have used as a base for his early
ministry. This follows on from his baptism and wilderness
temptation, which is believed to have happened when Jesus was
around 30 years old (Luke
3:23). Preaching in synagogues (Jewish places of worship) was
most likely part of Jesus' regular pattern, and he had earlier
announced the scope of his ministry when he visited his home town
of Nazareth (Luke 4:16-30).
Today's reading takes place in a similar synagogue, where the people were continually amazed at Jesus' teaching. But what was so amazing about it?
When I went to university, I soon learned that no one is really interested in what you have to say unless you've first studied what's gone before. An academic essay that doesn't have frequent references to other scholars is unlikely to get a very high grade. Students are expected to write with a certain humility and respect - aware that countless others have done a lot more work on the subject well before you came on the scene! Preachers, too, are not expected to get into a pulpit and 'say it as they see it' without first having consulted some commentators on the subject (and, at the very least, consulted the Bible!) In Jesus' day, this was no different. Jewish teachers would constantly refer to the traditions of various elders in the faith, as well as the great writings, and not least the particular rabbi in whose footsteps they were following. But Jesus was unusual. They say he spoke with authority.
In his words and stories, in his commands and teachings, Jesus didn't refer back to the great Jewish teachers. Even when he mentioned the Scriptures it was to offer fresh and challenging interpretations of the Law. He was original; he was unique. He spoke as though there had been no teachers before him. His authority appeared to come direct from God. This was the authority that amazed and shocked his listeners. But where was the proof? If you can't back up your words how can anyone trust them? The answer here came in his actions.
In this story, Jesus comes face to face with an evil spirit - an "unclean demon" within a man. Demons seemed quite common in Jesus' ministry, even though the rest of the Bible has little to say about them. It's as though Jesus' very presence has awoken manifestations revealing the spiritual side of his mission. The ultimate goodness of God comes face to face with evil in very tangible ways. The demon addresses Jesus as "the Holy One of God" - emphasising the stark contrast between them. A holy war is going on, but the demonic forces are portrayed as feeble when confronted with Jesus' words. It's believed that similar demons were usually addressed using magic spells which invoked other powers and authorities, but Jesus simply spoke to the evil spirit. He told it to shut up and get out! And the Gospel-writer Luke (who is believed to have been a doctor) informs us that the patient wasn't left with any permanent damage.
And so, not only could the people hear Jesus' authority, they could see it too. His words were backed up by his actions. And the people's words at the end of the passage suggest this was not a one-off event. Jesus was beginning to be recognised as a very powerful figure.
In our gospel life, we may speak words of love, peace and compassion, but where is the proof that God is with us? Like Jesus, shouldn't our words be supported by our actions? Read and reflect on James 2:14-26.
We must be careful not to quickly diagnose 'demons' today for conditions which would be better helped by medical science or psychology. Consider what unnecessary distress or damage could be caused to someone if we were to simply assume that the spiritual climate of Jesus' time is the same as it is in the west today.
At the end of Matthew's Gospel, Jesus says, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations" (Matthew 28:18-19). When we speak, pray, or act in the name of Jesus, we are not claiming our own authority but that of our master. How do we ensure that our teaching and actions are in fact in line with Jesus? How does the community of the Church help us with that?