He taught them as one having authority
He taught them. We can all remember teachers who brought a subject alive, the people who imparted both knowledge and an appetite for learning to their students. The people whose teaching was inspiring and who people wanted to listen to. And that kind of teaching happens at every level and stage in our lives. From our earliest years we learn from our parents and other members of our family. As we grow a little, we might learn from pre-school teachers or from our friends or their parents. And that pattern continues. Lifelong learning may be a bit of a buzzword around educational circles, but within spiritual environments it’s always been important. Jesus was in the synagogue at Capernaum, in an environment where people expect to hear teaching – and that is just what he did. He taught in a different way – and they heard in a different way, because of who he was and how he was able to impart knowledge.
The ways in which ideas and understandings are presented to us have an impact on the authority that they hold for us. If someone speaks out of their own experience or research, we hear in a particular way. It’s perhaps the difference between a tried and tested news source and on-line fake news. Jesus was able to teach with authority because of who he was and what he brought. The Word made flesh, sharing that word.
Today is Homeless Sunday. Homelessness is a topic that generates an enormous amount of debate and opinion sharing. People are homeless for this reason or that. The solution to homelessness is this or that. The media likes to cover stories about homeless people – sometimes sympathetically and sometimes not. And how do we decide which of the perspectives is more true or more believable – which has the authority? The people who know about homelessness and who have the authority to teach us are people who are, or have been homeless or have worked with homeless people.
People are the experts in their own lives and, if we offer them the opportunity, are able to share their own stories and experiences in their own words. It can be very challenging to inform ourselves by listening to the people who are in the midst of an experience – but they are the people with the authority to teach us. One problem for us is that our access to that teaching is not completely open. For instance, there are TV and Radio programmes made by reporters who have spent time in homeless shelters or attempting to meet rough sleepers. And those programmes do a good job in allowing us to hear the voices of some people; voices emerging directly from experience and vulnerability. But – they are inevitably selective. They can only broadcast the voices of the people who have agreed to participate. They probably choose to broadcast the voices of those who are more articulate and, dare I say it, whose stories elicit more sympathy.
In recent weeks I have heard and read stories about working people who are sleeping rough; about former soldiers who find themselves on the streets; about women whose vulnerability is tangible. Those stories are important. But we rarely hear stories about the chaotic drug user, or the person with chronic mental health who is unable to access adequate support in order to maintain a tenancy. The narrative accompanying a story about someone in a hoodie who won’t look at the camera will inevitably be different from the story about someone who looks straight into the camera and makes the case for change. Neither is more deserving; neither is more sad; neither is more of an indictment on our society. We have failed both of those people.
Let me tell you a story about one person I knew. We’ll call her Linda. I met her about 20 years ago. She had a long history of mental health treatment; she had used drugs for many years; she had never sustained a tenancy for more than a few months. Her life was chaotic.
Linda had been a client with a number of support and care agencies, but it was very difficult to see any change. Her mental health impacted on her drug use; her drug use impacted on her compliance with her treatment; her chaotic behaviours made it difficult for professionals to remain in her life. Linda drifted in and out of homelessness. Sometimes she was in compulsory treatment and therefore was housed by the Health Service. Sometimes she was in a hostel, but she never managed a long term stay there because she inevitably broke the rules and was evicted. Sometimes she accessed HIV respite support and had a place of safety that way. But mostly she lived on her wits. She loved someone once – but he died. Drugs were her most reliable friend. They gave her respite from her own head; they allowed her to spend time with other people – even if that was dangerous time. They were reliable. And, in the end, they killed her. The drugs weren’t the problem any more than they were the solution, but for Linda, they served her.
I suggest that we create a possibility of change when we meet people where they are. My experience of Linda was that when she was treated with dignity, when her humanity was acknowledged, when she was recognised as the expert in her own story, she responded to that. When people respected the reasons that she made the choices she made – whilst sometimes reminding her that they were not the best choices – she was able to be in touch with a healthier part of herself. When she was asked to tell her story, to teach about the impact of her life experiences, she found the authority within herself to do that – and we learned from her.
Linda taught with authority. She never had the opportunity to teach the people, the policy makers and politicians, whose decision making might have changed things. There are lots of reasons why voices like Linda’s are not heard, but until they are, the outcomes for the most vulnerable people in our communities are unlikely to change. Linda gave me the authority to tell her story, to teach from her experience. And my voice is heard in a different way from hers.
Back to that synagogue in Capernaum. Jesus shared the Good News with the people who gathered to listen to him. Jesus taught about the ways of God and the nature of God, because he came from God and knew that he would eventually return. Jesus wasn’t speculating or exploring ideas – he was sharing truth, absolute truth. And people listened. People who could make decisions, people who could influence others, people with their own authority listened.
The historic Jesus is not among us, but his teaching most certainly is. We have the authoritative accounts of his life and teaching. The authority rests in those words – the Word made flesh sharing the words that bring us the Good News. Let us respect and honour that authority. And as we do so, let’s find ways to respect the authority of all the Lindas out there on our streets and find ways to hear about their lives and respond to their teaching.