“Jesus and his disciples went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee”
This well-known story from the gospel of Mark invites us to consider the nature and power of authority. There are of course different kinds of authority. Some are formal and explicit, given by institutions and traditional power structures and hierarchy. But I often think less formal authority can be much more powerful.
That implicit or non-formal authority is what often changes our lives in ways we don’t see until much later. It is that person you wish to emulate, not because of their title or position, but because of the way they live their life. It is probably a lot more about their actions than their words. There is an inherent integrity that draws you in and causes you to take notice.
As our early morning bible study was reflecting on this earlier in the week, I was reminded of my college advisor, Dr. Kim Tunnicliff. There were a lot of ways he formed me, but one of the most important was his ability to listen. I rarely remember him appearing too busy to have a moment to hear my latest concern or triumph. And he did this for countless students. His authority that came with his position as the Director of the Ford Institute for Public Service was not what changed so many of our lives. It was the integrity, compassion, and wisdom he made readily available to students. He was so known for his listening capacity that when one of my best friends needed to change course in his senior year he didn’t go to his own advisor. He went straight to Kim. He was not in his department, but his ear was still available, and this changed the course of my friend’s life.
Jesus certainly didn’t enter the synagogue as an obvious authority figure. He was a visitor who had come by and would not have been assumed to have much to offer to the professionals who had prepared worship that day. But his power is so evident that the most dangerous force in the room immediately knows to beware and look out! The unclean spirit knows that this authority is about creating space and freedom for healing. It makes me wonder, how often I miss the opportunity to see who is offering me a new teaching, with authority, that doesn’t conform to the way I see the world?