The Original Artist
When I was a kid, just getting into popular music, I was at a record shop one day when I noticed this great looking album cover. It was a collection of greatest hits, featuring songs by some of the British groups I then so greatly admired—like Gerry and the Pacemakers, Herman's Hermits, The Seekers, Chad and Jeremy, and of course, the Beatles. Written across the top of the album cover were the words "Original Artists," and the price was quite reasonable. What a find this was! I bought it with my paper route money, took it home, and put it on the old Mono Hi-Fi Record player we owned. Only to be shocked and surprised and disgusted by the sounds I heard. This wasn't the music I had expected the songs were the same, but the singing and the guitar accompaniment was very different and very terrible. I grabbed the album cover. It was that moment that I realized the importance of small print and the wisdom of the old adage "buyer beware." For the cover actually said, "written by THE ORIGINAL ARTISTS" and then under that, and again, in small type, "as performed by the Happy Tones” or some such vacuous name as that. It was a "knock-off” album designed for fools like me who would be taken in by the promise of authenticity, of originality but then be subjected to music most unoriginally and badly played.
When Jesus walks into the First Synagogue of Capernaum one Sabbath, he does not disappoint his audience with unoriginal, inauthentic material. No, his one of kind authority is what impresses them the most They seem taken less by the content of his teaching, than by the way he taught. They seem less interested in his exorcism, then in the way he did it. Both the teaching and the exorcism are met by the same response from his observers. "What authority! " they say.
Mark' s point is indirect here, but we readers of his Gospel know from whence Jesus gets his authority—from God It is an authority made explicit in his baptism: Thou art my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased. It is an authority made present in Jesus as he inaugurates the Kingdom—the Reign—of God.
In the New Testament, the word "authority" has three concepts behind it: freedom, ability, and power. To exercise authority, one must be free enough to act out of one's own will; one must be competent enough to act and one must be supported by enough power or strength to carry the act through. Jesus has this authority on all three levels. Because he is so closely related to the Creator of all there is, he can be creative himself in thought and in action. Because he is inextricably connected to One whose very word speaks reality into being, his words match his actions with a seamless consistency. And because he is especially infused with God’s Spirit, his very presence exudes a power which re-creates reality, redeeming all people who follow in his trail.
In this scene, Jesus is opposed by two forces who unwittingly conspire with one another, demons and scribes. Each has its own authority. Demonic forces are always destructive, seeking to oppress the human personality. Since Jesus understands the Sabbath day to be given by God for the purpose of human rest and re creation, he uses this day to free a child of God from one of the world’s demons.
The scribes, of course, thought Jesus was breaking the law. That's what the scribes were good at, you know, using the law to limit and constrict life. The scribes were originally given the privilege of preserving the traditions of the covenant people of God. But over time, they turned that divine privilege into their right, and thereby tried to gain control over the thoughts and behavior of the people. These "Doctors of the Law" became increasingly interested in their own power, and as such they, too, oppressed the people with their rules and regulations. They bullied the people as they exercised their authority by authoritarian means. No wonder the people didn't like them or follow them with much enthusiasm. So focused on the letter of God's word were they that when that Word stood before them as a living and breathing person, they could not recognize him for who he was.
Who was Jesus? A “Doctor of Grace." He came to free people, not to enslave them; to liberate people, not to bind them to narrow interpretations of the law. Though he used his authority to rebuke demons and to challenged the scribes, he never forced his will upon people who were open to a fresh breath of God’s Spirit moving through their lives. He was not authoritarian, and thereby he defined what a gracious authority is all about. He used his power when it was tight to do so, not simply because he could, and certainly not to satisfy a whim of the human will.
Demonic forces are powerful, but they are also predictable and dull. Their music is boring and ugly. They have but one note in their range, the note of death. The self righteous and power hungry among us can be a bit predictable and boring too. While their music may not be deadly, its monotony can surely put us to sleep. We've heard that tune before, and we didn't like it much the first time.
By contrast, Jesus speaks and acts with an uplifting, original authority. He brings life and joy, peace and well being, even when we are going through periods of great torment. His music is always new to our ears, its sounds rich and deep and varied, with several octaves at his disposal. It is easy to kill the human spirit, to restrict life. But to create life, to bring light and freedom and beauty into human existence—and to do so consistently and well—now that takes a real artist.
The authority of Jesus is a true authority: freely chosen, ably and powerfully accomplished. But his authoritative style is used not against us but for us; for our redemption, not our domination. Mark doesn’t tell us the content of Jesus' impressive teaching here. All we know is that it was not like “that of the scribes." His message was no dull, regulatory manifesto from a remote God but a bright burst of good news about a God become accessible, with forgiveness in his heart and healing in his words.
At the end of his time, Jesus passed on his authority to his disciples. "Go therefore," he will say, “and preach and teach and baptize and make new disciples.” We are those new disciples, the inheritors of Jesus' authority for our time. In the exercise of this God -given freedom and ability and power, let us remember who we are and who we are not
Let's state the obvious. I am not Jesus; neither are you. I am not even "an amazing simulation” of Jesus. Since our authority is subservient to his, perhaps we may describe ourselves as humble and redeemed scribes of Christ. We have the freedom and ability and power to preserve his traditions. If we were Jesus, we could merely open our mouths and let the Word of God flow. But as we are, we have to check what we say against scripture, tradition, experience, reason, and the law of love. Perhaps, with God's help, we may, upon occasion, take on the forces which oppress the human personality and send them to you know-where. Perhaps, with courage, we might be able to challenge those modern day, unredeemed scribes and Pharisees who would choke the life out of the Gospel.
Who are we? “Doctors of Grace" like Jesus. Together we can point out to each other those moments in our lives when God’s redemptive movement is near to us. In so doing, let us be free and creative in the Spirit. Let's not try to force the Spirit to fit into our preconceived notions or try to exclude God's chosen ones from God’s beloved community. Otherwise like the scribes of old, we might miss the living and breathing reality of God even when it’s standing in our midst.
In our common mission as scribes of Christ, perhaps we will only become the "Happy Tones" who sing thin echoes of his songs, who try to lip-sync his lyrics. But that is at least a good start on our life's calling. For it is by listening to and imitating his music that we learn to follow him, and to claim the gentle and redemptive authority he gives us. Remember that it’s not just what Jesus said in his music, but the way he said it which we need to hear. What's important is not just what he did in his symphony of service in God's name, but also how and why he did it. As imitators of his style as well as his substance, we will not lord our heritage over others or demonize those who believe or behave differently than we. We will simply and gracefully proclaim Christ as the author and the finisher of our faith, the origin and destination of our best hopes, the creator and re-creator of our living, love.
Jesus is one-of-a-kind. There will never be another exactly like him. But all of us are called to be transformed, more and more, after his likeness, according to his image. That transformation takes practice; it takes experience; it is a life-long process. So let's get in a little practice right now. Come to the Lord' s table and commune with—experience—the genuine article, the real thing, the authentic and beloved Holy One of God Take into your heart, body, and soul the unique stylings of the original artist
Dee H. Wade Anniston, Alabama