The people were astonished at his teaching” (Mark 1:21).
The Book of Proverbs has this ominous line: “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”
National purpose and cultural coherency rest on some kind of common identity, and in times when people are divided or consumed by fear, the common good is endangered and everyone goes their own way.
Social conflict and perceived scarcity devastate communities by destroying cooperation. Political corruption and lies erode trust in government. There is no legitimate authority in the land, and the people perish.
Mark’s Gospel begins with Jesus establishing his authority. He is God’s Son, and his presence in the world reasserts control over all the forms of false authority and what Mark calls “unclean spirits,” social forces authorized by Satan that have distorted people’s hopes and sown fear.
Jesus’ arrival in the synagogue, the local focus of legal and spiritual authority, begins with conflict over healing on the Sabbath. In today’s Gospel, a possessed man erupts in recognition that Jesus is God’s Holy One. The power of evil, so long in control of human society, is over.
Jesus orders the unclean spirit to release its victim. In a dramatic show of the struggle going on between Jesus and Satan, the man is convulsed and the spirit departs.
The people are astonished. Mark uses a Greek word for this amazement that suggests that a theophany has occurred. The crowd is not just impressed with Jesus’ show of authority, they are moved to the depths, almost to the point of fear and awe.
Something new is here. Jesus is a teacher who tells the truth with power. The crowd is astonished because they have not found this kind of authority in their own leaders and teachers, who only parrot the words of the law.
The word authority is derived from the idea of authentic, or author. What the people hear resonating in the voice of Jesus is the Source of truth. His command over disease unclean spirits and physical forces is grounded in God, the author of creation. Jesus has come to heal creation and to restore the image and likeness of God to the world.
Our worshiping communities are meant to be places where we find realignment in the authority of God. Who has not felt scattered and uneasy at times in our modern society, with so many competing ideas and values pulling at us like a centrifugal storm that consumes and distorts our spirits? Who has not wondered about our national direction these days as our leaders seem paralyzed and unable to govern, or as money corruption and the rhetoric of fear and division challenge basic values of decency and compassion for the most vulnerable among us?
The Word of God comes to us as we again center our lives on the mystery of Jesus, who gathers us at the table of his own self-sacrificing love. In his love we find the authority of Communion with one another. We are filled with the Holy Spirit and sent to be ambassadors of reconciliation and healing.
We are a people with vision, and we will flourish and not perish.