A couple of weeks ago I had a free evening and went to see Martin Scorsese’s new movie, “Hugo”. It’s a beautiful motion picture, a combination of children’s fantasy and loving history of the early days of movies. I’ve long admired Scorsese’s films: even though most of them deal with New York street people and gangsters, they always exhibit a surefooted cinematic style. No matter what the subject of a Scorsese movie, you always watch it with the awareness that you’re seeing a movie made by someone who really knows how to make movies.
It’s a mystery (at least to me) how some people have an innate grasp of what they’re doing and others don’t. That grasp or the lack of it has nothing to do with intelligence. It’s a question of inner orientation.
Some people really know how to do what they do; others, not so much. When discussing visual art, the painter Frank Stella calls this quality “pictoriality”—in his words the sense that painting “can rise above the self-concerns that determine its own ends”. [Frank Stella, Working Space, p. 1] What Stella means is that a great painting uses the visual field with a kind of authority that renders the subject matter irrelevant. Caravaggio has it. Cezanne has it. De Kooning has it. Their paintings are totally dissimilar in style and subject matter, yet each one commands the space on its own terms. Frank Stella calls this quality “pictoriality”. And we might apply that idea to different forms of human endeavor.
Jesus had a kind of moral pictoriality. He preached and taught in a way that was surefooted and authentic. In our Gospel for this morning, we are told that the people at Capernaum “were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” [Mark 1.22] In the Judaism of Jesus’s day, the supreme religious authority was vested in the Torah, the law of Moses, the first five books of the Bible. The scribes were a class of Bible experts who would study the scriptures, render opinions, and resolve disputes about how to interpret Jewish law. When the crowd at Capernaum says that Jesus does not teach like the scribes, what they mean is that he does not ground his teaching in a claim of professional expertise or an appeal to someone else. He teaches as one who knows what he’s doing, with authority. In Frank Stella’s language, he is like an artist who paints with pictoriality. He is the Caravaggio, the Martin Scorsese of teaching. He knows how to tell you something in a way that you will be sure to take it in. And he tells you truth that he knows personally, not that he heard from another source.
What Jesus has, according both to Mark and the crowd, is “authority”. The Greek word that we translate “authority” is exousia, and exousia (authority) is always contrasted in the New Testament with another Greek word, dunamis, which means “power”. In the Gospel stories of Jesus, we are told that he has authority, meaning that he speaks and teaches with an inner sense of the right to do so. In the Bible’s understanding, authority comes from within. It is an orientation toward what one is doing, a sense that one is entitled and privileged to do it. Jesus teaches as one with authority, not like the scribes. He does not talk or sound like someone who has spent his entire life in the library. He talks about God not with textual evidence and citations but from a living inner experience.
So Jesus teaches with authority, with exousia. What he does not teach with is that other word, dunamis or power. Dunamis is the word from which we get the word “dynamite”, and it has less to do with inner confidence than it does with the ability to compel somebody to do something. If I teach with authority, you listen because I’ve convinced you I know what I’m talking about. If I teach with power, you listen because I’m holding a stick of dynamite to your head. Bad teachers teach holding the grade book in one hand, threatening students with their power. In the New Testament, power is a military word, authority a spiritual one. Caesar acts with dunamis, with power. Jesus acts with exousia, with authority.
At this point you are probably asking yourself why I have dragged you through this seemingly endless word study: “pictoriality”, “authority”, “power”. I’ve done so for a couple of reasons. One of them is that I love words and can’t help myself. The other, more serious reason, is that I believe this contrast between power and authority is important for each of us to grasp if we are to live in the world as followers of Jesus, children of God, and as brothers and sisters of those around us.
One of the problems with being a Christian is that we have received this authority teaching of Jesus all wrapped up in a system of ecclesiastical power. It is perhaps only one of the ironies of the Jesus movement that what began as a critique of power (the state power of Caesar, the religious power of the scribes) became, for centuries, embodied in a world-historical power projecting institution. When Christianity moved from an outsider movement to the official religion of Western culture, it became hopelessly enmeshed in questions of power. Look, for example, at the title I carry as the presiding priest of this parish. “Rector” comes from the Latin word, rex: king, ruler, power-wielder. And look around you at the building you’re sitting in. At least one of the purposes of Gothic architecture is to make you feel small, to emphasize the power of the institution that inhabits it. Want to think for yourself? Just look around and see how far you’ll get. The church, as a human institution, became obsessed, as all human institutions are, with the internal distribution and external wielding of power. But the Jesus we meet in the scriptures is not interested in power. He lets Caesar and Herod argue about that. The Jesus of Mark’s Gospel is interested in authority.
And it is the authority of Jesus—what I’ve called his moral and spiritual pictoriality—that causes the crowds to follow him. In today’s Gospel he casts out a demon. In other stories he heals people, curing lepers and paralytics and restoring sight to the blind. Jesus can do these things not because he has a certificate from an institution telling him he can. He does these things because of his own internal connection to and grounding in a relationship with God. He does not force or compel people to be well. He draws them toward wellness because of the depth and quality of his inner life made visible in his outward actions.
Last week I was trying to explain to some students at Cranbrook the difference between “moral” and “moralistic”. What I finally came up with was this: “moral” people say, “I ought”. “Moralistic” people say, “thou shalt”. A truly moral person is concerned with his or her ethical obligation in a particular situation. A moralistic person wants to tell you what you should do. It is Christianity’s tragedy that we have often confused the two: over time, we’ve behaved less as a moral movement and more as a moralistic institution. Jesus taught not as one with moralistic power—the ability to compel other people’s assent—but as one with moral authority. He openly lived the Gospel he proclaimed from within. He drew other people into the expanding circle of his enfolding love.
There are, for me, two implications for us in all this. One has to do with our shared, Christian community stance toward the world. The other has to do with how we, as individual people appropriate God’s authority in our lives.
As to the first: as a community, the church is called to be moral, not moralistic. We are called to exercise authority, exousia, not power, dunamis. If we think we are still a world-historical power-projecting institution, we are kidding ourselves. There is lots of bad news in the decline in church membership and attendance across the globe these days, but hidden in all that loss is at least one gleaming nugget of good news. We are no longer the official religion of the western world. Therefore, we are free to live again as the church lived before Constantine. We can become, again, the Jesus movement, a group of fragile, faithful women, children, and men called into new life in the fellowship of Jesus and his table. As a body, we are now free from the burden of telling other people what to think. We can turn to the much more energizing and illuminating task of standing for what we believe: justice, compassion, inclusivity, love.
Freedom from having to live from power is our greatest gift as a people. As individual people, there is also an implication in the shift from power to authority, and living into it starts with seizing an insight delivered late in Martin Scorsese’s movie, Hugo. Near the end of the film, Hugo says this to the girl Isabelle who has become his friend:
I'd imagine the whole world was one big machine. Machines never come with any extra parts, you know. They always come with the exact amount they need. So I figured, if the entire world was one big machine, I couldn't be an extra part. I had to be here for some reason.
There are no extra people. We are each here because we matter, because we count. Live your life not with power but with authority, with pictoriality, with joy and generosity and compassion and hope. Live from your authentic self, out of what you know to be true. If we all did that, we’d be just like Jesus. And everyone around us would be astounded. Amen.