Two words in the Gospel account (Mk 1: 21-28) capture my attention… “astonished” and “amazed.” St. Mark reports that the people in Capernaum’s synagogue were astonished at Jesus’ teaching and all were amazed. So the question arises: Why? Why were they so astonished and amazed? After all they thought Jesus was a rabbi, someone who speaks God’s word, and they were, after all, in a synagogue, a place where one would expect to be hearing about what God had to say. So why were they so astonished and amazed?
First of all we need to notice that this event occured at the very beginning of Our Blessed Lord’s public ministry. St. Mark reports this event in the first chapter, twenty-first verse of his Gospel account. Jesus has just finished gathering His twelve apostles and was now “going public,” so to speak. Jesus had not as yet performed His dazzling miracles. He had not as yet cured the blind, healed the lepers, healed the crippled, and raised people from the dead. The most astounding miracle of all — His own resurrection from the dead — had not yet occurred.
Why then was there astonishment and amazement at His first words here, at the beginning of His public ministry? It was common, we know, for rabbis to have followers and to move from synagogue to synagogue. What was so amazing about Jesus? Wasn’t He teaching the way rabbis taught? Wasn’t Jesus proclaiming the word of God to His people – something all rabbis did?
What I want to point out is the particular style of speech used by Jesus and to note the way He taught. He did not say “The Lord’s words for you today are…” Nor did He say: “The God who sent me says this…” No. Jesus spoke in His own name, on His own authority. There is, you see, a big difference in Jesus’ speech here. He is telling everyone what He, the Christ is declaring to them. He is not speaking on behalf of God — He is speaking as God!
In another gospel account, St. Matthew, reports Jesus as saying:
“You have heard the commandment imposed on your forefathers, ‘You shall not commit murder; every murderer will be liable to judgment.’ What I say to you is …everyone who grows angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment. “You have heard the commandment, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ What I say to you is: anyone who looks lustfully at a woman has already committed adultery with her in his thoughts. “You have heard the commandment imposed on your forefathers, ‘Do not take a false oath; rather, make good to the Lord all your pledges.’ What I tell you is: do not swear at all. Say, ‘Yes’ when you mean ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ when you mean ‘No.’ Anything beyond that is from the evil one.”
The Ten Commandments were revered by the Israelites. Those commandments and the tablets upon which they were written connected them — directly connected them — with God Himself. To alter or tamper with them was, for the Jews, absolutely unthinkable. To hear Jesus expand on those commandments was, to say the very least, astonishing and amazing. What Jesus taught was marvelous. It was luminous, enlightening, and brilliant. But how He taught was mind boggling because the way Jesus spoke was as God speaking. He didn’t speak about God. He didn’t begin by saying: Thus says the Lord…” No. He simply and directly spoke as only God would speak. Nothing could be more astonishing than that. Either Jesus is who He claimed to be and demonstrated Himself to be, or else He was a charlatan, a fraud, and a liar. He is either God the Son made human flesh, or He is not. One has to choose. One cannot escape making that choice.
Have you ever heard it stated that it really doesn’t matter what religion you belong to since they’re all leading us to God? When you hear that said you should realize that sort of thinking flies in the face of what we just heard about Jesus Christ, both in today’s passage as well as in many others. Because if it is true that Our Blessed Lord is God made flesh for us, then it really does matter what religion we have. The devils themselves recognized Him. Why do those who claim to be religious people refuse to acknowledge who He really is? It wasn’t the devils that gave Jesus a bad time. They simply vacated; they simply fled from His presence and went elsewhere to do their dirty work. It was the religious know-it-alls who gave Jesus a hard time. The more they realized that Jesus of Nazareth was really Someone, the more they understood what He was claiming to be, the more they wanted to rid themselves of Him. He spoke with God’s own authority. He was a terrible threat to the claimed authority of the big know-it-alls.
Now there are many ways people try to rid themselves of Christ. They tried to kill Him, bury Him in a tomb and then post a detail of soldiers to guard that tomb. We know, however, how useless that was. Another way is to simply ignore Him. Many have done that, are doing it now, and will do it in the future. The danger about ignoring Him is equivalent to the danger of ignoring the instructions on drug prescriptions, or ignoring the directions on how to fly an airplane.
Still another way is to claim that Jesus is just another interesting religious figure in human history. You simply decide that Buddha or Mohammed, or some guru from the Far East is just as good as Jesus it comes to journeying to God. But if that’s true then why bother with going to church? Why not simply start your own church? I mean, after all, if you really believe that one religion is just as good as another you can probably do a better a job with organizing a religion than the ones we’ve got. But when you do, let’s see you cure people with various diseases, make the blind see, restore crippled limbs, and raise people from the dead. Finally, and most importantly, let us see you rise from the dead three days after you’ve been buried.
So is it really true that one religion is just as good as another? Do we take the words and teachings of Jesus with ultimate seriousness or do we just relativize His life, death, resurrection and teachings? Is His voice just one of many? Or is He the Word of God spoken for us?
Now I’m quite aware that all of you here today do not dismiss Jesus. You wouldn’t be here listening to His words and receiving His Body and Blood if your hearts and souls were elsewhere. But I’ll bet you have heard members of your families reduce religion to something equal to a cafeteria choice by declaring it doesn’t really matter what you pick and choose. Will you simply let those statements pass by unchallenged? Will you let your children, your grandchildren and members of your family, as well as your friends who say these things, go on without responding with your own convictions about Jesus Christ? We need to love them enough to call them to take Jesus of Nazareth seriously. After all, He really does speak with authority, and not like the others.
We’ve all heard a lot of talk about evangelizing. Evangelizing doesn’t mean that we have to go around town knocking on doors and preaching at others about our religion. It can be something far less difficult and far less offensive than that. Evangelizing can be as easy as simply and clearly stating the truth about Jesus and telling folks “We have never heard anyone else speak with such authority.”