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The Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time [B]

First Reading Deuteronomy 18:15-20
Second Reading 1 Corinthians 7:32-35
Gospel Mark 1:21-28

…He taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes.

The people in today’s Gospel passage are astonished at Jesus’ teaching, “for He taught them as one having authority”. Towards the passage’s end, all are amazed at this “new teaching with authority”. This “authority” is worth our reflection.

In ordinary use, the word “authority” has a meaning much weaker than the way it’s used in today’s passage. A police office has authority to make an arrest within his jurisdiction. A judge has the authority to pass sentence in her courtroom. A colonel has authority to issue commands within the range of his commission. But in each case, this authority has been handed down from a higher authority: the chief of police, the governor, or the colonel’s commanding officers. Yet those higher authorities themselves report to others, within chains of commands that reach upwards.

By contrast, the amazement in the Gospel passage is that Jesus is leap-frogging over all human forms and chains of authority. This is testified to by the novelty of his teaching. His teaching doesn’t seem to have been “handed down” from anyone. It just appears seemingly out of nowhere.

Perhaps part of the amazement at Jesus’ teaching is the contrast between Him and Judaism’s long tradition of prophets. In today’s First Reading, we hear the first Jewish prophet, Moses, prophesy about the fulfillment of a strange request from the Jewish people: “‘Let us not again hear the voice of the Lord, our God, nor see this great fire any more, lest we die.’” Apparently, God’s self-revelation was too much for them to accept. Perhaps they thought that that same revelation when handed down to them by prophets would be more palatable, or at least watered-down. In any case, Moses explains that God will indeed fulfill their request. Yet one ought to be careful about what one requests from God.

Jesus Christ is more than only a prophet, of course, but He does fulfill the role of prophecy that began with Moses. It was Him of whom Moses prophesied in today’s First Reading. Why, then, are the Jewish people so surprised at Jesus’ teaching? Wasn’t Jesus’ teaching in line with that of Moses? Wouldn’t those listening to Jesus have heard Him echoing the prophecy laid down by Moses in the first five books of Scripture?

We might consider two reasons for the confusion caused by Jesus’ teaching.

First, so many centuries after Moses prophesied, his teaching was clouded by the legislation taught by the scribes. The Jews could no longer see the Law for the laws. St. Mark the Evangelist points specifically to this contrast: Jesus “taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes.” So if the revelation originally given Moses had become obscured, it’s not surprising that one who fulfills Moses’ prophecy would also seem obscure. The scribes, for one, weren’t wanting what Jesus had to offer.

Second, even those such as the Pharisee Nicodemus, who perceived in Jesus someone well worth listening to, had difficulty grasping the fullness of Jesus’ words. Even for those persons who had a clear belief in Moses’ prophecy, something seemed out of order in Jesus’ teaching.

With the hindsight of 2000 years of the Church’s history, we can see what even faithful Jews like Nicodemus could not: namely, the order of Jesus and Moses. It wasn’t that Jesus echoed Moses, but that Moses had echoed Jesus. Before Moses was, Jesus is. Jesus’ authority comes from the simple fact that He Is Who Is: He is the eternal God who authored all of creation in the beginning. Jesus does not come to us, though, in thundering voice or in great fire on Mt. Sinai, but in the silence of Mt. Calvary and the fire of the Upper Room on Pentecost.