Wednesday, January 28, 2009

A Different Kind of Teacher

What image comes to mind when you hear the word “teacher”? I picture a bespectacled middle-aged woman with hair pulled back in a bun. How about “exorcist”? A very different image comes to mind. In our culture, teachers and exorcists are at opposite ends of the normality spectrum. Exorcists deal with dark, satanic forces and are featured in horror flicks. Teachers assign homework and wipe children’s runny noses. Many kids want to become teachers, but I’ve never heard one say, “I want to be an exorcist when I grow up!” In Mark 1:21-28, Jesus is both teacher and exorcist.

Before the Enlightenment most people thought about demons much the way we think of germs. They’re everywhere. You can’t see them. They’re dangerous and potentially deadly. Many people no longer believe in demons, at least not in the literal sense. But Jesus certainly did and had some spectacular encounters with them, showing that he had power even over evil spirits.

What great joy and relief the demon-possessed man and his family must have felt when Jesus finally delivered him from the evil presence. I cannot imagine what it must have been like for him before—partly because we don’t really have a category for demon possession in our society. We only encounter it second hand, in missionary stories and Hollywood films. We do, however, have many people whose lives are controlled by various physical and mental handicaps and addictions. Anyone who has had a special needs child or a mentally ill spouse or a sibling with a drug addiction or a friend with AIDS understands something about suffering and social stigma that accompanies these conditions. I’m not suggesting that demons are the cause of any of these problems. I’m saying that these situations can give us a clue about the suffering the demon-possessed man and his family went through before Jesus set him free—the same Jesus who taught us to pray, “deliver us from evil.”

Yet there was something that impressed Jesus’ contemporaries more than exorcism. (Exorcists were a dime a dozen in Bible times.) What really astonished them as Jesus’ teaching. Mark doesn’t even tell us what Jesus taught on this occasion. But he does tell us how he taught: “For he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes” (22).

Jesus’ authority was different than that of these experts in Jewish law. The word “authority” comes from the same root as “author.” A few months ago, I overhead a chaplain arguing with my boss about whether or not something was in a particular Secretary of the Navy directive. “I assure you,” my boss said, “it’s in there. I know it’s in there because I wrote it.” Jesus was not only an expositor of scripture, but he was also its origin. Christians believe in the deity of Jesus. As God, Jesus is the one who “inspired”—literally breathed into—scripture (2 Tim 3:16) similar to the way God breathed life into Adam (Gen. 2:7). Indeed, Jesus is the source of all life (John 1:3, Heb. 1:2). That’s why his teaching was, and is, powerful.

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