Monday, February 6, 2012

Jesus Preaches With Authority

They went into Capernaum, and immediately on the Sabbath [Jesus] entered the synagogue and was teaching. And they were astonished at his teaching for he taught them as one who had authority and not as the scribes (Mark 1:21-22).
One of my favorite movies of all time is the African Queen with Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. In the film, Bogey plays an alcoholic riverboat captain named Charlie Allnut in WWI Africa who keeps Rose and Samuel Sayer’s mission in German East Africa supplied. When war breaks out “Mr. Allnut,” as he is called by Rose, tries to get her to leave. When her brother is beaten by a German soldier and eventually dies of a fever, she agrees. Rose comes up with a plan to convert the African Queen, Charlie’s riverboat, into a torpedo boat and sink a German gunboat - the Louisa -  which is effectively blocking British counter-attacks on the large lake down river. Long story short, they have a harrowing adventure and eventually – though not in the manner they intended – blow up the German gunboat.
Charlie is captured and taken aboard the Louisa after the Queen sinks, seemingly failing in its mission. He is questioned by the German captain. Believing Rose to have drowned, he makes no attempt to defend himself against accusations of spying and is sentenced to death by hanging. However, Rose is captured too and Charlie yells her name, but then pretends not to know her. The captain questions her as well, and Rose confesses the whole plot proudly, deciding they have nothing to lose. The captain sentences her to be executed as a spy along with Charlie. Charlie asks the German captain to marry them before executing them. After a brief marriage ceremony, the Germans prepare to hang them, when there is a sudden explosion and the Louisa starts to sink. The Louisa has struck the overturned hull of the African Queen and detonated the torpedoes.
The best part of the movie for me is definitely the marriage ceremony. With ropes around their necks the German ship captain declares, “By the authority vested in me by Kaiser Wilhelm II, I pronounce you man and wife. Proceed with the execution.”
I’m not sure if ship captains actually have some sort of authority to conduct weddings by virtue of their being ship captains, but it has become part of the popular culture. Authority comes from many different sources, and is usually confirmed by some display of power. Whether or not Charlie and Rose recognized the German captain’s authority to execute (or marry) them, he had the power to do both…at least until his ship was destroyed.
When discussing government, the term authority is often used interchangeably with power. The meanings of these two terms differ, however. Power is defined as the ability to make someone do something that they would not have done; Authority refers to a claim of legitimacy, and the justification and right to exercise power. A mob, for example, may have the power to punish a criminal by seizing them and perhaps lynching them. Only a court of law, though, operating as an arm of the legitimate governmental body has the authority to punish said criminal (Authority 2012).
Why were the people in the synagogue surprised by how Jesus taught? Jesus speaks with the voice of God. When the scribes taught, they quoted other authorities. When the prophets spoke, it was clear that they spoke in God’s name and at his direction, and therefore under his authority, not by their own. Jesus, however, does not say, “Thus saith the Lord!” as the prophets did. His is the voice of authority.
The scribes were a class of professional scholars who were learned in the law. The scribes – the “teachers of the law” as they were sometimes called – dated back to the time of Esther (Engelbrecht 2009). In those days, the early scribes were priests. As law and synagogue grew in importance during the “time between the testaments” when the prophets ceased to speak, these priests evolved into a new class of lay biblical scholars. They grew into defenders of Jewish identity during a time of increased Hellenization and became popular with the people.
Their [Scribes] function was not only the elaboration of the law, i.e., making explicit what was implicit, but also the teaching of its requirements to the people and the handing down of legal decisions. In later times the Scribes had the additional responsibility of the careful preservation of the sacred text (Harrison, Bromiley and Henry 1999).
As their role in Jewish life evolved, so did their treatment of God’s Law. In the process of “making the implicit explicit” something happened. These teachers of the law not only taught their people what the law said, they also added stricter requirements to the law. The purpose of doing so may have been noble, but the practice yielded disastrous consequences. For example, the Mosaic Law forbade the Israelites from boiling a calf in its mother’s milk[1]. This requirement of the law eventually evolved into the practice of not eating meat and milk together, or even serving the two together at the same meal. Today religious Jews may even keep two sets of dishes and silverware – one for meat, one for dairy products – to avoid transgressing and inadvertently mixing the two (Yahoo! Answers 2012).
There was a problem with this, however. The man-made requirements eventually became more important to people than the spirit of God’s actual law. This is what Jesus rails against when he gives his scathing condemnation of the Scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23:
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel! (Matthew 23:23-24)
People became convinced that they merely had to keep the requirements of the law, as interpreted by their teachers, and they would have a right relationship with God. Jesus tells us, though – with the voice of authority – that, compared to the Scribes’ and Pharisees’ failure to keep the weightier portions of the moral law (the commands to act justly and mercifully towards others), their painstaking tithing of garden produce is absurd (Engelbrecht 2009).
Scripture is full of such references that teach that sacrifices by the outward act (ex opera operato) do not reconcile to God. Since Levitical services have been repealed, the New Testament teaches that new and pure sacrifices will be made: faith, prayer, thanksgiving, confession, the preaching of the Gospel, troubles on account of the Gospel and the like (McCain, et al. 2005).
God desires mercy, not sacrifice[2]. Even though he had prescribed sacrifices and other acts of worship in his law, they are not pleasing to him unless they come from the heart. We do not earn God’s love and forgiveness simply by the outward act of keeping rules and regulations, performing acts of worship, or giving money. These things should be a response to having received God’s gift of grace through faith.
And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who were oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:17-21).
This is the message that Jesus delivered with the authority of the voice of God. God had come to his people to rescue them from their sin, from death, and from the power of the devil. The Scribes and Pharisees were about to have their legalistic boat blown out from under them.

End Notes

[1] Deuteronomy 14:21

[2] Hosea 6:6; Matthew 9:9-13

Works Cited

"Authority." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. February 4, 2012. (accessed February 4, 2012).
Engelbrecht, Edward A et. al. The Lutheran Study Bible, English Standard Version. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2009.
Harrison, Everett F, Geoffrey W Bromiley, and Carl F Henry, . Wycliffe Dictionary of Theology. Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1999.
McCain, Paul T, Robert C Baker, Gene E Veith, and Edward A Engelbrecht, . Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions. A Reader's Edition of the Book of Concord. Saint Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2005.
Yahoo! Answers - Why don't practicing jews eat dairy and meat together? February 4, 2012. (accessed February 4, 2012).