Speaking with Authority

5 September 2006: Tuesday of the 22nd Week in Ordinary Time
Luke 4, 31-37: Speaking with authority

In the environment of Jesus, it was the scribes --- the teachers of the Law --- who were customarily addressed by the title, “rabbi”. Rabbi was a title of respect for a teacher. In Aramaic, ‘rabbi’ means ‘my lord,’ which can be translated in a substantively as ‘teachers.’ Most often, the New Testament uses the Greek equivalent, ‘didaskalos’ for ‘teacher’. When Jesus went to the synagogue and taught, the people were amazed at His way of teaching, because he taught with authority. By teaching with authority, Jesus differs from a ‘rabbi.’ Let us do a comparison and contrast.

Jesus shares similarities with rabbis. He proclaims the divine law, teaches in the synagogue, debates with other scribes concerning the Law in the manner of their profession and under the same authority, that is, the authority of the Scriptures. He uses parables and explains Scriptures. He was approached for decisions on the points of the Law. And He has disciples and gives them special instructions just like the rabbis do.

However, there are differences between the rabbis and Jesus. He was no scribe or rabbi in the strict sense, because he lacked the basic requirement which is the prescribed course of instruction. He did not have the theological studies under another scribe. To become a teacher of the law, a person had to spend years studying the Law under another scribe. Second, he did not teach only in the synagogue. He taught in open fields, on the shores of a lake, and the like which are very unlike a scribe. And at the same time, Jesus’ disciples included those which a rabbi would avoid because His disciples included women, tax collectors whom scribes regarded as sinners, and the like. And Jesus’ message was for all, while the message of the scribes concern only Jews.

The Gospel today shows us that the manner of teaching of Jesus differed profoundly from that of other rabbis. A rabbi’s authority is derived from Scriptures. A rabbi must show that his teaching conformed to Scriptures, the tradition of the Fathers (authoritative rabbis of the past who gave interpretations of the Law). But Jesus taught in his own authority. His authority is immediate. His teachings never consist merely in the interpretation of an authoritative sacred text, not even when the words from Scriptures were quoted. The authority of the will of God is always directly present in him. This is true to such a degree that he even dared to confront the literal text of the Law with his own authoritative declaration of the will of God. In doing this, he modifies the Mosaic Law given by God on Sinai. At the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus modified the teachings on killing, adultery, and oaths (Matthew 5, 21ff). He would say, “You have heard it said to the men of old (meaning, men of the Sinai generation whom Moses gave the Law)... But I say to you ...” Jesus modified the teachings on divorce, revenge and on the love of enemies by giving his own view on these issues, without referring back to others. And this is the reason why his audience in the Gospel today is astounded.

Many of the teachings of Jesus are hard to apply --- even the laws he modified. When we try to live out Jesus’ teachings, do we follow them with an open heart, or do we wish them changed and conformed to what we want. For example, a married couple who have problems with each other would choose to abandon ship than try to reconcile, would wish that Jesus’ law on divorce be modified. Those who have enemies would not like Jesus’ challenge to love and forgive. In other words, how trusting are we to the authority of Jesus’ teaching?

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