They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”
But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him.
They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching – with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”
Making my way down to the canal behind a ramshackle Bangkok slum, I spotted an orange-robed Buddhist monk sitting in a small wooden pergola. Flower garlands lay at his feet, and lotus flowers bloomed in the surrounding swamp. I approached and greeted him as properly as I could by pressing my palms together in the traditional “wai” and using Thai high pronouns for “exalted one.”
I’ve greatly enjoyed many times bantering with monks, who are typically more easygoing than you might expect. I’ve learned a lot from them. Even with his head and eyebrows shaved, though, I immediately could tell that this monk was older and more serious than many of the younger guys.
I offered a bit of small talk. “Come here often, honored sir?” Ok that was lame, but hardly warranted what came next.
“Do you not know I have the power to kill you right now, right on this very spot? Right at this instant!” His eyes drilled into mine. “I have authority from a spirit with immense power – the power of death. Do you doubt it?”
Whoa. A chill swept over me in the tropical heat. In rapid succession, voices from both my cultures weighed in with equal force. From my adopted Thai eastern culture I thought wow, this is deadly serious – as genuinely grave as handling high voltage wires while wading in the swamp. Then from my native western culture I thought, who is this dude? A cranky old guy in an orange bedsheet sitting in a flowery outhouse? And animist spirits aren’t even a Buddhist concept, technically speaking. Facts are I could, and possibly should, toss him in the canal. Sheesh.
The eastern voice quickly won out. After all, I was shaking. Grasping for calm, I drew a breath. “I don’t doubt it sir. With respect, I too have authority from a Spirit with immense power – the power of life. The Spirit of the Exalted One named Jesus – creator of heaven and earth. This Spirit of life is more powerful than any powers of death. It is the Spirit that sets us free.”
What came out of my mouth surprised me far more than what had just come out of his. Where did that come from in me? Had I rehearsed in advance, I would not have said anything remotely like that. I’m not well versed in these dynamics and would see no advantage in trying to one-up a spirit master.
It was his turn to look stunned. Were his lips actually quivering? He looked away, then turned back without any of the previous sternness at all. “You have spoken truthfully. Death has no power over you, and neither do I.”
That encounter took place decades ago, and I’ve hardly spoken of it since. To be honest, I’ve not fully understood it. To this day, both my eastern and western voices speak with equal force in my head. What realities were afoot that afternoon in the swamp?
Reflecting on this week’s lectionary passage, I’m struck by many of the same realities – at least in the same ballpark. Spirits. Fear, freedom. Life, death. An encounter involving power and authority. And to anticipate a theme later in Mark’s gospel, the need to keep quiet about the story.
One difference: I ain’t Jesus.
I asked Street Psalms friends this week about spiritual authority. Having seen and experienced its misuse – resembling the old monk’s power play more than the meekness of Jesus – we’re not high on the term. But we’ve known, and needed, genuine authority that makes space for life amid death. Death in our contexts presents with such force, such power! We tremble, and grasp for calm. And sometimes – sometimes! – the voice and power of life rises within. We are astonished by its gift of peace in our communities. We’re reluctant to speak of it, but we know. We know.
Have I said too much already? I have other ideas, analysis, and hypotheses about authority. My friends suggested spiritual authority is a grace grounded from within, and recognized by its fruit from without – in community. Helpful insight. My eastern voice – like this passage from Mark – reminds me there is also much behind the veil of sight and insight.