4th Sunday in Ordinary Time
28 January 2018
1 Cor 7:32-35
To assert authority is to raise the question: where does that authority come from? Our readings this Sunday present us with various answers.
In today’s Gospel, the first answer is that Jesus’ authority comes from what he does—”he gives orders even to unclean spirits and they obey him.” This is not just a dramatic story; it is an actual historical event. As John Paul Meir, a historical and biblical scholar, writes in A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus (at 2:630), “The statement that Jesus acted as and was viewed as an exorcist and healer during his public ministry has as much historical corroboration as almost any other statement we can make about the Jesus of history.”
The second answer points us to whom his authority is derived from—Jesus’ authority comes from God Himself. In the First Reading, God told Moses, “I will raise up a prophet like yourself for them from their own brothers; I will put my words into his mouth and he shall tell them all I command him.” The Jews have always interpreted this ‘prophet’ to refer to the Messiah; the early Christians saw this verse fulfilled in Jesus.
The words of Jesus are thus the law, for it is God who has placed them in his mouth. In this sense, the ancient connection between the Prophets and the Law culminate in Jesus.
This leads us to the third and most critical answer of who Jesus is—”the Holy One of God.” Jesus’ authority is not merely derivative; He himself is Authority. He is equal with the Father (and the Holy Spirit). He is Lord.
Consider the way that he casts out spirits. While the miracle-workers of that time would engage complex rituals and magical displays, Jesus’ words alone compel. Consider also the way that he speaks. While the scribes at that time would have appealed to Scripture and quoted ancient rabbis, Jesus simply teaches.
This is the Authority that “astonished” the people and “made a deep impression on them”.
“What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” Face to face with the Ultimate Authority, this is then the next question. If we have recognised our Lord and our God, the next step is to listen to what he says and to do what he bids. Life should be that simple.
But the reality is more complex. Like the man possessed by an unclean spirit, a part of us resents authority. Like him, there is darkness and disintegration in all of our lives. We love our neighbours, but we park indiscriminately. We let our children be baptised, but we do not let our sons be priests. We confess that Jesus is Lord, but we cannot confess that we are in the wrong. We want our own way, to pursue our own interests, to live our own lives.
So this is what Jesus does: He heals. His light enters our darkness. He casts out our demons.
And when we are finally free to listen to him and to follow him, he lets us choose. At the end of the day, this is perhaps all that he wants: for us to choose him.
No one knows what happened to the man whom Jesus healed. Perhaps he followed Jesus from then on. Perhaps he went back to his worldly life and forgot all about Jesus. So it is with us whenever we encounter Jesus, be it in a retreat, in Mass, or in the blessings of our daily lives—do we choose, again and again, to follow him or the world?