Saturday, January 31, 2009

He taught them as one having authority

FOURTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, February 1, 2009:

“The people were astonished …for He taught them as one having authority.”

So, let’s start with an informal poll about the Superbowl. How many of you are rooting for the Cardinals? And the Steelers? I’m hoping for the Steelers myself. I could have also asked about the World Series, but given it is still 13 days until Spring Training, it would be just a guess. Whether World Series or Superbowl, we can hope, but we just don’t know. You see, not knowing is a part of the human condition. It is our lot to live, sometimes uneasily, with uncertainty. There are many occasions in life where it would be great to have a chance to “ask the audience” or “phone a friend,” but instead we’re often stuck with the reality of not knowing.

But, what comes across in our Scriptures today is not the uncertainty and unknowing that we’re used to living with. Instead, what comes across about Our Lord today is authority. We hear that word repeatedly. The authority that Moses speaks of in the first reading would fit Jesus to perfection, “A prophet like me will the LORD, your God, raise up for you; to him you shall listen.” Jesus does command that type of authority in our Gospel reading today. Jesus was an invited speaker at the Jewish synagogue in Capernaum and there they were, very pious and attentive, wondering what He was going to say, and how He was going to say it. As it turned out, His manner of speaking was very different from either a rabbi, or a scribe or a prophet.

It was the practice of Jewish rabbis at the time to build on the teachings of their predecessors. In discussing issues put to them, they would refer to explanations given by rabbis of the past. Over time, those rabbis who gained renown for their wisdom and teaching would have their explanations added to the body of teachings from which the rabbis of the future would draw their authority. But, the people in our Gospel passage today are astounded at Jesus words because He does not speak on the authority of someone else. Instead, Jesus speaks with His own authority, which comes solely from Him as Son of God, and man, is it effective. When Jesus tells the unclean spirit to come out, it comes out of the man. Jesus’ very word is active and creative and effective and does not rely on any other power or authority – it has its own authority.

Jesus, the very Word of God in human form, the “Word made flesh,” speaks differently than everyone else. If He were simply a rabbi or scribe, He’d have explained the Law of Moses to them. No more, no less. If He were only another prophet, He would simply have handed on the Word of God to them. He would have said, “Thus says the Lord…” But, Jesus speaks for Himself. His word is God’s word; God’s voice; God’s authority. Small wonder that His teaching impressed them. After all it was weighted with eternity. Worded like no other teaching before or after.

What is even more incredible, is that this authority still exists in our Church today. Jesus shared this authority to teach, preach, forgive and heal with His Apostles and with us today. This authority to make known how Christ’s teaching is applicable in our world today rests in the teaching office of the Church, which we usually refer to as the Magesterium. Magesterium is a word that we don’t hear a lot of today. One of the greatest challenges we face in the Church today is the phenomenon of the a la carte Christian, who picks and chooses what part of the teaching of the Church they want to believe in, as though portions of our faith were optional. It is a vanity that we all suffer from, thinking that we can, of our own accord, accept some things and reject others, as though they were the teachings of mere humans. We act as though we can say, “I’ll keep the last 5 commandment, but I’m going to opt out of the first 5.” I hear all the time that people have decided, for example, that you don’t have to go to Mass every week anymore. They’ve decided it. I can’t count the times when someone says, “I’ve decided this or that is not a sin.” We’ve certainly all been guilty of this to one degree or another at some point in our lives. The reason, I think, is that often the teachings of the Church are difficult. It is challenging in our world today to live the way that God wants us to live, and so we look for the loophole. But, remembering where this Magisterium comes from, Who’s authority it actually is – the commanding authority of Jesus Christ – can help us in being more faithful followers of God and His Church.

This teaching authority of the Church helps us to understand the Scriptures and how they apply in today’s world. This is one of the reasons that the Magisterium is so important. It helps us to understand how Jesus would address the issues of our own day that were not even contemplated in Jesus’ time. It is the Magesterium of the Church, for example, that helps us to make sense of complex and complicated issues of things like cloning, and embryonic stem cell research, the death penalty, abortion and assisted suicide – issues that could not even be imagined in the time of Jesus.

This teaching authority is not a “because-I-said-so” reality, rather it is based on a body of beliefs that is rooted first and foremost in Scripture, that has developed and grown over the centuries, has been influenced by over 200 popes, and thousands of bishops, priests, theologians and lay Christians. Working together, always under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we can be certain of an authentic handing down of the faith, and an authentic application of the teaching of Our Lord Jesus that helps us understand the realities and situations we encounter in our modern life.
We’re not called to a blind following of the Church and her teaching, but rather to at the very least be open to the possibility of her truth. Whenever I struggle with a teaching of the Church, I always begin from the presumption that the Church is right and my task is to learn and inquire and study to find out why she is right. If we are a little skeptical about the Church, inclined to hold back from it a bit, let’s remember that the Church itself is a consequence of Jesus time on Earth; it is the result of His authority. It is not self-appointed or created, but a community established by Jesus Himself. “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, make disciples of all nations,” He told us.

The Church is commissioned to be an extension of Christ in its devotion to truth and in its exercise of charity and compassion. She is meant to use her authority, not as tyranny, but in service. The Church is a teacher and a guide to her members on the road to salvation. She is there to comfort us as well as make us feel loved. Whatever her human faults, the Church does her best to provide the pastoral care that her members need. You don’t have to look further than the fact that the Church is the largest non-governmental provider of outreach services, medical service, family services and educational services in our nation; and the Vatican is the largest charitable organization in the world. The Church is here to serve. Authority comes to the Church from Christ always paired with service. That’s the way it is meant to be. It is significant that, having just asserted His authority in today’s Gospel, Jesus goes on to immediately perform a miracle. Words weren’t left hanging in the air – action followed! The Church must continually follow up her teaching today with action as well.

We pray that we may always have open hearts to receive the teaching that the Church, in its two millennia of wisdom, hands on to each of us. A number of years ago, Pope John Paul II said, “If you love Jesus, love the Church.” May we experience the care, concern and love of the Church – and love for the Church – in our own lives and may we be a part of it ourselves. May it be a personal goal for each of us to make the people we come in contact with feel loved, welcomed, cared for and comforted, as the Church has done for us. And let us pray for the Church, that she may be strengthened in her mission.

“The people were astonished …for He taught them as one having authority.”

May God give you peace.

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