“Don’t tell me what I can and can’t do.” “You can’t push your morality on me.” “You have no right to order me around.”
We just don’t like authority here in the West. In an increasingly cynical and postmodern culture, people in authority are eyed with suspicion. Authority threatens our sense of autonomy. Even in the church, the role of authority has been questioned—to the point where the bestselling Christian novel, The Shack, has denounced authority as inherently evil. We just don’t like the idea that someone can waltz into our lives and demand that we drop everything and do what he commands.
Maybe that’s part of the reason we have such a big problem following Jesus. He is not afraid to insist on his own authority.
Take a look at today’s passage in Mark. The first scene opens with Jesus walking along the shore of the Sea of Galilee, a deep lake known for its excellent fishing. He sees two sets of fishermen working the family business, calls to them and commands them to follow him, and they obey. Mark doesn’t really get into the backstory of these men (though John’s gospel explains that they already knew who Jesus was). Mark simply offers us a scene so abrupt, so startling, that we are left wondering, “What man possesses authority so great that he simply asks a handful of fisherman to leave their lifelong family business in order to follow him around?” Jewish Rabbis didn’t seek out followers; their followers sought them. Yet here is Jesus, walking up to these men and staking his claim on their lives. As far as he was concerned, they belonged to him. He owned them.
Do you find that last sentence a little threatening? I’m an American citizen, and odds are that you are as well. We like to think we’re free; we like to think that nobody has the right to order us around. The problem is, Jesus has that right. “Follow me,” he insists, “and I will make you become fishers of men.” There is a threatening beauty to Jesus’ statement: it is a command followed by a promise. To men who have no greater ambition than to make money and pass on the family occupation, Jesus offers something far greater. “You won’t be fishing for fish anymore. No, I will turn you into someone who fishes for people. The gospel of the kingdom that you’ve heard me proclaim is the gospel that you will proclaim.” Jesus gives them a new destiny, providing a sense of meaning and purpose to their lives that they have never had before.
So what do Simon, Andrew, James, and John do? Jesus says, “Follow,” so they follow. They leave their jobs and their families and obey him at once. That’s the sort of authority Jesus has.
With his disciples in tow, Jesus shows up in the town of Capernaum along the seashore. He arrives in the local synagogue on the Sabbath day and is invited to teach. When he does, he astonishes everyone there because he teaches them with authority, “and not as the scribes.” The scribes were the local teachers of the law, who would simply parrot what other teachers had said about the Old Testament. Not Jesus! He steps up and teaches his own ideas, and he teaches them with the air of someone who is perfectly within his rights to order you around.
However, there is someone in attendance who doesn’t want to be ordered around. A man with an “unclean spirit”—a demon—tries to shout Jesus down. He wants to shut down Jesus’ teaching, so he instigates a confrontation, shrieking, “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.” The unclean spirit is attempting to wrest control of the situation from Jesus. He goes on the offensive with three statements. First, he demands that Jesus leave him and his demonic comrades alone. Second, he announces that he knows Jesus’ plan—to destroy him and his fellow spirits, who have been harassing the people of Galilee. Third, he knows Jesus’ secret identity. He is “the Holy One of God”—someone with a special relationship with God, if not the Messiah himself! The unclean spirit pulls out all the stops to gain control over Jesus.
Jesus will have none of it. “Be silent, and come out of him!” he demands. Jesus had been teaching, the spirit had tried to shout him down, and now Jesus shuts up the spirit. This demon leaves the man with one final act of defiance, “crying out with a loud voice.” And then—silence. Jesus has the stage to himself. The crowd is astounded—this is a man of impossible authority! And notice the emphasis in the text: “a new teaching with authority”! Jesus’ victory over the unclean spirit demonstrates that his teaching really does have authority. Jesus really does have the right to tell you and me what to do. He’s not afraid to use that right. He owns us.
But the next scene shows the beauty of this authority. After that day’s incredible encounter in the synagogue, Jesus spends the afternoon at Simon’s house. While he is there, his disciples tell him that Simon’s mother-in-law is sick with a fever. Here, we find the first act of faith in Mark’s gospel. The disciples see that Jesus had the authority to drive out an unclean spirit. Maybe he has enough authority to heal her from this dangerous fever! They ask Jesus if he will do something about it.
Think about this. Here is a man with an authority they have never witnessed before. They have no right to demand him to perform a miracle of healing. He is perfectly within his rights to refuse them. Yet Jesus approaches the bed, takes the woman by the hand, and lifts her up. The fever leaves her, and she is finally able to show hospitality to her guests. Jesus wasn’t forced to heal her—he chose to heal her. He uses his authority for our good. He wants to heal us; he wants to free us; he wants to give us a new destiny.
Yes, his authority threatens us. And it’s a lovely sort of threat.