Not too long after I got my driver’s license when I was 16, I found myself in a Defensive Driving course in order to avoid paying for my first ticket. (Just for the record, the car behind me was riding WAY TOO CLOSE and had I stopped instead of turning left on the YELLOW arrow there would have been a big mess in the intersection, thankyouverymuch.) A 16 year old over-achiever, I was attentive and studious throughout the class. One lesson in particular stands out to me to this day. The question came, “You are approaching a 4 way stop intersection from the south at the same time someone approaches it from the west. Do you have the right of way?”
My hand shot up in the air like a scene from Welcome Back, Kotter. Oooh! Oooh! Pick me! Pick me! “Of course I have the right of way. I’m to the right of the other driver.”
“Wrong!” was the answer of my very satisfied teacher, satisfied that he had sucked another unsuspecting student into his trick question. He had the attention of us all then. We all knew we were right. We all knew I was right. But I wasn’t, he kept insisting. “You only have the right of way if the other driver gives it you.” Ahhh… my teacher’s point was subtle, but true. The right of way, the authority to drive through the intersection safely and in conventional order is only useful if everyone agrees to it. The right of way only exists if all the drivers at the intersection respect it.
Such is the way of human authority. Authority as we’re used to it is something granted or given - - whether it’s granted by law such as the authority of elected leaders, or granted by convention, such as the authority given to magazines to decided what’s in and what’s out of fashion. Authority, as we know it and live it, gets its power because at some point individuals or societies grant it and agree to live by it.
Such is the way of human authority, but it’s not quite the same with divine authority. Divine authority is on another plain all together. It’s not earned; it just is. It’s not decided or given or granted. It’s just claimed and lived and known. The worshipers in Capernaum that morning that Jesus walked into the synagogue could have told us the difference.
In walks this Jesus, if they even knew his name, and he begins to teach in their synagogue like no one they have ever heard. He doesn’t need to quote the scribes and rabbis of generations gone by to prove his authority and knowledge. He speaks with authority like they have never seen or heard. It didn’t come from their respect or from the recommendations of others. They didn’t vote him into position or even invite him to come teach. But here he was, teaching among them with an inexplicable authority. Almost immediately they begin declaring their astonishment at his teachings, the authority he seems to just exude, authority beyond even that of their local scribes and leaders. They were astonished and, I imagine, probably a bit thrilled, likely growing proud of their little seaside town for the stir this would make throughout the region.
This guy, whoever he is and from wherever he comes, is good and this guy is with us!
What happens next would cause the jaws of all first century Jewish listeners to drop to the floor. It doesn’t so much have the same effect on us. Such is the small downfall of working with ancient Scriptures. We miss some of the inside jokes and nuances. “Just then,” Mark writes, “there was in their synagogue” (the holy place on a holy day, Sabbath, the place of worship, the place only clean people and clean things would dare come) “a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out.”
Big problem! Or should I say big problems! First there’s just the distraction, right? Here there is this teacher teaching in front of a totally captivated congregation. They are engaged. They are astonished. They are fully into what is going on, and this…this man comes bursting in, crying out, and messing it all up. What is going on?
But then beyond that is the bigger problem - - holy day, holy space, clean people, clean space and now there’s the man with an unclean spirit. Whoever this new teacher is, the worshipers worry, he is NOT going to think much of us after THIS unnecessary episode. Why won’t this guy just sit down?
But instead of sitting down and being quiet, the man keeps going. “What are you doing here with us Jesus of Nazareth?” (Ohhhhh!!! So that’s who he is. Who’s Jesus of Nazareth?) “Have you come to destroy us?” (Destroy us? But he’s teaching so well. He really speaks to me. He’s not going to destroy us.) “I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” (Now wait just a minute. That’s taking it a little too far. He’s good, but really….)
“Have you come to destroy us?” Really? The congregation had to be furious! Here is this teacher, this one with this AUTHORITY, and this unclean man with unclean spirits has the audacity to question him, question his intentions! They were probably all THRILLED when Jesus rebuked him. They all wanted to tell him to shut up and get out, so I imagine there was a collective sigh of relief when Jesus himself to him to do as much. “Be silent!”
But Jesus doesn’t seem upset by the distraction in the way I imagine the folks of Capernaum were. He silences the man, or the demons in the man, but he doesn’t send him and them away. Instead he calls them out. He calls the unclean spirits, the demons that bind this man, that control him, that make him unfit for public appearances, that keep him from the holy places and the holy days, that keep him God and keep him from the community, that have overtaken his life and forced his hand in so many ways. Jesus calls these demon spirits out into the open, and yes, yes is the answer to the possessed man’s question - - He did come to destroy them.
The congregation in Capernaum is astonished by Jesus’ authority, but the unclean spirits have the clearest insight. I know who you are. You’re the Holy One of God! None of the worshipers claim this. None of them pick up on it. Sure they recognize his teaching is, dare I say it, out of this world, but even in their amazement they have missed the TRULY amazing, the truly UNIQUE thing going on right before their eyes, and it is more than just a man teaching with authority, even divine authority.
People who can teach with divine authority, prophets really, aren’t anything new, right? I mean, the people of Israel wandering in the desert knew there were prophets who could teach and speak a work from God. They had Moses before them, and they looked for the day when new prophets would arise from among them. They may have wondered how to tell which ones were true, and which spoke most authentically or with authority from God, but even they never questioned that divinely-appointed teachers exist.
Like the Israelites knew to look for a prophet, the people of Capernaum knew enough to be amazed by the one in their midst who spoke with authority, but in the end they stopped short of the best response to the one among them. The unclean spirits, though, knew what was up. They drew the line to connect the dots from great teacher to one with authority to Holy One of God with the power to destroy, but destroy with a power that brings life to the world.
The unclean spirits were exactly right with their questions of this authority, their anticipation of what Jesus was there to do, and they had every reason to be scared. Destroying that which control us is exactly what Jesus came to do. Destroying that which divides us from God and one another is his goal and his purpose. Destroying the unclean spirits the try to lay claim to the people of God is exactly what Jesus’ authority is for.
Demons and unclean spirits are sort of a foreign and maybe anachronistic idea to many of us. We don’t usually think in those terms, and many of us might question the validity and existence of these sorts of demonic forces in, as we like to say, “this day and age.” But our belief or disbelief doesn’t change the work of Jesus of Nazareth, the Holy One of God, then or now. He still comes with authority, and he still comes to destroy.
He comes to destroy the things the bind our bodies, our hearts, and our minds. He comes to destroy our attitudes of self-righteousness that keep us separated from one another. He comes to destroy our need to consume and collect more and more, things greater and greater than our neighbor. He comes to destroy our greed and our self-centeredness. He comes to destroy addictions and habits that harm ourselves and harm others. He comes to destroy the grudges we hold, the sorrows that grip us, the jealousy that paralyzes us. He comes to destroy with all divine authority, divine power, and divine love anything and everything that keeps us from God. He comes to destroy it all.
The unclean spirits were right to cry out. They saw into the authority and recognized God in this man, and that should frighten anyone or anything working against the will of God, because God will go to any length necessary make us whole. Jesus will go as far as we need him to go to grab us out of the clutches of unclean spirits. Like the bread that is broken for us at his table, even his life is broken that we might live, free from sin, free from the suffocating spirits that choke us, free from the walls that divide us from love.
Astonishment is obvious in the presence of one with such awesome authority, the Holy One of God, but knowing who he is, declaring his power, and giving in to its life-freeing destruction - - that is even better!