11 January 2010

Is his teaching enough?

1st Week OT (Tues): Readings
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
SS. Domenico e Sisto, Roma

Either in person or on television we've all seen preachers exercising what they call healing ministries—miraculous cures, exorcisms, thousands of believers throwing off sin and coming to Christ. The more dramatic demonstrations of the Spirit include stadiums full of people being “slain in the Spirit” at the direction of the evangelist: dancing, laughing, crying, falling out, and speaking in tongues. These mass celebrations are evidence to many of us that the evangelist-in-charge speaks and acts with the authority of God to accomplish a divine purpose. To some, admittedly the less credulous among us, these shows of spiritual power seem touched more by the spirit of a circus than the spirit of God. We probably all know someone who will point to the antics of Christians on TV and say, “See. You people are not only gullible but a little crazy too!” It's all just mass hypnosis, or mob rule, or even the sort of public catharsis that Aristotle finds so useful in good theater. Not everyone is going to be astonished by the wonder-working power of the Church at prayer. Without prejudice in deciding the authenticity of televangelist ministries, we can say that Jesus managed to astonish and amaze with nothing more than his teaching. Mark reports in this morning's gospel that Jesus wowed the crowd by doing nothing more than preaching and teaching God's word with authority. It is only after he has captured their undivided attention that he performs an exorcism. And he cast out the demon only because it is outraged enough to speak against him. Are we still astonished by his teaching alone? Or do we need proofs of his authority?

Let's admit that this is something of a false dilemma. We can yearn for both Christ's teaching and demonstrations of his divine power. However, it's no accident that in this gospel account Jesus teaches first and then exorcises demons. Why? Imagine that the order were reversed. First, the exorcisms and then the teaching. Would the crowd still have been astonished? Very likely but for very different reasons. Had Jesus shown that he commanded unclean spirits first, the crowd would likely see him as a magician, or a prophet, or some sort of holy man not unlike many others at the time who laid claim to the ministry of healing through casting out demons. His authority as a man of God would be established on his demonstrated ability to perform acts of supernatural prowess. Sure, those in the crowd would have still listened to his teaching afterward, but the authority of the teaching itself would be based on supernatural acts publicly performed and not on the person of Christ himself. We are not saved from sin because the man Jesus could command demons and heal the sick. We are saved because the man Jesus is the Christ.

Jesus is able to do what he does because of who he is. His identity as the Christ is what gives him authority and his authority as the Christ is what establishes his teaching as divine. Mark is making the point here that Jesus is the exception to the normal rules that govern what makes the teaching and the teachers of God's word authentic. Jesus is the Word made flesh. He is the teaching itself given human form, the embodiment of the Holy Spirit of love that the Father and Son have for one another. When his words are heard and his deeds witnessed, the crowd is stunned not by the truth of what he says and does. They are amazed by Truth himself; that is, they witness a manifestation, an epiphany of Truth living, breathing among them. The unclean spirit, seeing him for who he is, does not cry out in despair, “You have the power to cast me out!” It cries, “I know who you are—the Holy One of God!” Even demons know the truth.

So, are we still astonished by Christ's teaching alone? Or do we need proofs of his authority? In truth, his teaching is all the proof we need of his authority. He is the Holy One of God!

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