Michael SimoneJanuary 16, 2018

Someone who speaks with authority combines clarity of vision and compelling experience. A superb example appears in the movie “Scent of a Woman.” Early in the film, Charlie Simms (Chris O’Donnell) catches sight a group of pranksters at the elite prep school he attends. Whether or not he recognizes the vandals is never clear. Headmaster Trask (James Rebhorn), however, believes Charlie knows exactly who they are. He attempts with promises and threats to wheedle the information out of him, even at the expense of the school’s traditions of integrity, courage and leadership. As Charlie continues to maintain that he never got a clear look at the vandals, Trask summons him to an all-school assembly to pressure him to come up with names.

‘What is this? A new teaching with authority.’

(Mk 1:27)

Liturgical day
Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
Dt 18:14-20, Ps 95, 1 Cor 7:32-35, Mk 1:21-28

What authentic truth has Christ taught you?

How can you embody Christ’s message with greater authenticity?

Accompanying Charlie to the assembly is Lt. Col. Frank Slade, U.S. Army (ret.), played by Al Pacino. Slade recognizes that the process is a sham and will lead inexorably to Charlie’s expulsion. Slade turns things Charlie’s way, however, when he speaks on Charlie’s behalf. Though Slade is not an alumnus, his life experience and clear insights embody the school’s traditions in a way that Trask’s rhetoric never will. The headmaster’s self-centered grudge is obvious, in spite of his eloquence and appeals to virtue. Slade, by contrast, mesmerizes his listeners with his plain but confident speech and the authenticity of his experience. Trask can impress with learning or threaten with power, but Slade can speak with authority.

This is what Mark describes in this week’s Gospel passage. Jesus did not have scribal training; he did not have the full knowledge of the traditions and interpretations that surrounded the Scriptures. Scribes had carefully compiled these for centuries, and they took a lifetime to learn. Those who gave their lives to this learning were rightly proud of their role as Israel’s lore-keepers.

Jesus saw a problem. He also knew the Scriptures, and he applied them at home, in his workshop and among his family, friends, neighbors and employers. He recognized that although scribal traditions could open one to grace, they could also be a source of vanity, manipulation and snobbery. Jesus’ teaching, based on the same Scriptures but reinforced with real experience, humility and clear vision, electrified his hearers.

In their thrill, they experienced something more. In the Book of Daniel, God gave his own authority to “one like a son of man,” who was coming to restore Israel’s freedom (7:14). Likewise, as we hear in this week’s first reading, God promised to send a prophet who would speak God’s own words to Israel. As Jesus spoke with authority, many came to believe that he was the fulfillment of these prophecies.

Jesus’ authority extended to power over illness. In this is guidance for our own discipleship. We all know leaders who speak of values but fail to embody them, who promise clear guidance but use their power instead to serve their ego. It is easy to wonder what to believe and to let a sense of anxious confusion affect all aspects of life. Those disciples who can live in Christ with authenticity will, through word and example, deliver others from this anxiety and all the trouble it brings. Then we, like Christ, can teach and heal with God’s own authority.


[The Word is a weekly column of Scripture reflections published by America for over 70 years. You can sign up for a weekly newsletter of our newest reflections along with selections from our archive here. The Word podcast is available for free on iTunes.]

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