Fr Henry O’Shea OSB
Despite the fashionable mockery heaped by many populists from the
right or left of the political spectrum on those they classify as so-called
experts, most of us are prepared to accept the authority of at least
In many cases, we can immediately recognise some benefit to
ourselves. The knowledge or skill of, for example, a doctor or a
mechanic may be of use to us. In these situations, the knowledge the
other person possesses can be power – but in most cases we can choose
whether or not to avail ourselves of that knowledge or skill. More or
less consciously, we believe that in these cases our freedom, our space,
is not invaded.
Many of us, though, have difficulty with an authority which we know
or imagine to be claiming to have the right to tell us how to behave,
how to run our lives. Our experience of the abuse of such authority in
public life, in the Church, in school or even in our families, can make
us allergic to claims of such authority and its exercise. And so we are
entitled to ask, is there such a thing as legitimate authority?
In today’s gospel Jesus is recognised as one who speaks with authority.
Is his the authority of the technical expert? Is his an authority that
invades our space, that limits our freedom? Is his the authority of a
life-giving self-sacrifice or the self-seeking authority of the death-
The scribes in to-day’s gospel are the officially accredited teachers of
the scriptures in the synagogue. Their knowledge is power – and they
know it and use it. Those who are surprised to hear Jesus preach as he
did in the synagogue immediately recognise the difference between
him and their usual teachers. Spontaneoulsy they grasp the difference
between professional peddlars and interpretors of an inherited, stale
and almost academic, tradition and a person who is speaking from
inside his own being. They immediately recognise the difference
between the dealers in death and the giver of life.
Jesus’s teaching flows out from who and what he was and is. Who and
what Jesus was then and still is now, is recognised and shouted out by
one of his listeners. A man possessed by an unclean spirit cries out– ‘I
know who you are – you are the holy one of God’. Jesus shows himself
to be a new way of knowing God a new way of talking about and
talking to God, a new way of living God.
Regardless of how we today might understand and describe what is
meant by an unclean spirit, the intuition and recognition displayed by
this spirit are not mistaken. The unclean spirit calls out, ‘what do you
want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?’. Jesus’
reply, ‘be quiet, come out of him’, destroys the death-dealing unclean
spirit and returns his life to the possessed man.
Up to the time of his crucifixion, Jesus, the life-giving teacher, will go
on to destroy many more dealers of death until with his resurrection
he destroys death itself. Every day, every moment, he offers us, he
challenges us, to choose between life – that is himself – and death –
that is slavery to the cynical, hopeless, despair of the unclean spirit.
When we choose life, his resurrection gives us the hope that the choice
is the right one. The holy one of God gives us the strength to live out
that right choice.