REMINDER: Mass is celebrated in our chapel at 4:00pm every Sunday afternoon - before you "worship at the altar" of the television during the Superbowl tonight, be sure to worship at God's altar this Sunday. He's waiting for you!
As an old English Lit major, I notice that the word authority contains the word author. Much of what I did in college involved expositing on the ideas contained in various works of literature. Naturally, many of my classmates and I had different notions about the meaning of certain works. If the author of the text we were studying had been in the classroom with us he could have told us definitely what he had in mind while writing. Can you imagine taking a class on Shakespeare taught by the Bard himself?
An author has ownership over his story, because he or she is the creator of that story. In a sense, all of creation is a story -- a divine story told by a Divine Author who continues to write us all into existence. Just as Shakespeare is the ultimate authority on his own plays, God is the ultimate Authority over the universe. Just as my English major colleagues and I were trying to get close to the mind the author of the works we studied, the aim of religion and philosophy is to get close to the mind of the Author of us all.
This is why the episode in today's gospel is such a shock to the people in the synagogue. The teachers and prophets of the Jewish faith were those to whom God revealed certain truths, and who therefore could speak with the authority of God. But Jesus was not speaking on behalf of one with authority. He possessed that authority in His own person. "The people were astonished at His teaching, for He taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes." In Christ, the Author has entered into the story. It is no wonder people found His words astonishing.
Jesus further demonstrates His authority by showing command of the spirit world. A demon was possessing a man in the synagogue. Jesus cast the evil spirit out with the simple command, "Quiet! Come out of him!" Jesus elsewhere tells us, "If it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you" (Mt 12:26, 28). By demonstrating command even over unclean spirits, Jesus is both showing His divine authority and inaugurating the kingdom of God. When we find true authority, we desire to submit to it. We want to be citizens of that kingdom. The question for us then becomes, can this kingdom still be found today?
The answer is yes. Jesus used His authority to establish a Church to share in that authority. To His apostles he said, "Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven" (Mt 16:19). After His resurrection, Jesus appeared to His apostles. "He breathed on them, and said to them, 'Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained" (Jn 20:22-23). The specific authority to forgive sins is key to the central mission of the Church, which is to reconcile human beings to God -- to lead us back to the Author who created us. Jesus possessed God's authority to forgive and bring sinners back into union with Him (Mk 2:1-12). Jesus passed that very authority on to the Church.
The early history of the Church, found in the book of Acts, the various epistles contained in the New Testament, and in extra-biblical writings from the first, second and third centuries show us examples of a Church exercising the authority of Jesus. After Jesus ascended, decisions had to be made. What is the role of gentiles in the Church? Do gentiles have to obey the Jewish laws? How are disputes within the Church settled? How do we identify true or false teaching? What happens with someone denies the faith, but then repents? Can we accept such a person back? Many questions that we take for granted today, such as what books are in the Bible and the definition of the Trinity, had to be discussed and settled by the early Church. When these questions arose, rather than everyone "doing their own thing," the Church looked to the successors of the Apostles, the bishops ordained by them for leadership, to settle these matters with authority.
We still look to the bishops, the Apostolic successors, for that authority today. We still come to the Church for reconciliation with God. Why is this important? Because we want a Church that will be right when we are wrong. We want a Church that can challenge and correct us. We want a Church we can trust to speak the authentic Truth, not just what we want to hear. We want a Church that can lead us to the Author of us all.
Those who heard Jesus teach in the synagogue recognized His divine authority. May we recognize that same voice of authority in the teaching, love, and forgiveness found in the Catholic Church today.