And they were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes. Mark 1 v22
‘He knows what he’s talking about.’ That’s one of the most complimentary things you can say when someone has spoken: it says that the speaker thoroughly understood his subject and had experience of the practical implications of that understanding. I suspect that it was something like that that Jesus’s hearers meant when they said that he spoke ‘with authority’, unlike the usual run of teachers who were big on religious tradition and theological theory but gave no evidence of having learned very much from what they had seen of life, and seemed to lack real understanding of how to make life worth living. It’s not that speaking with authority demands lots of examples from the speaker’s personal life or pastoral experience; it’s often possible to sense when a quite general statement has the backing of life and experience, because it makes you want to say ‘Yes, absolutely! You’ve hit the nail on the head’. It can be a wonderful relief when you hear someone put into words thoughts that had been swirling round your head but had not yet found clear expression; perhaps they have dared to say what you barely dared even to think. That was the relief Jesus’s daring yet authoritative teaching gave his hearers.
Yet preachers need to be careful about this, as indeed do their hearers. In the first place, when you speak with this kind of authority, your words will inevitably say more about you than perhaps you intended: they will reveal something about who you are. Consequently, authoritative words, even when they are not explicit about what experience informs them, can be examined forensically to extract what they can suggest to us about the life of the speaker. We can do this with Jesus’s sayings and stories as much as with anyone else’s words. This may be biographically interesting but it’s rarely particularly helpful; after all, the point of the preaching is to help listeners make sense of their own lives and experiences, not to give them an insight into the vicar’s problems and peccadilloes. But sometimes it can be important to wonder about what informs preaching; if the speaker’s life experiences have led him to conclusions that could seriously mislead others, understanding as best we can where those conclusions came from may help to limit the damage they can do.
Speaking from a pulpit or some other ex cathedra position high above challenge can not only give the preacher a spurious authority in the minds of the hearers; it can also tempt the preacher to imagine he’s got it all sewn up, and not just sewn up for himself but sewn up in some absolute sense. This is especially the case when the preacher knows that what he’s saying has all the authority of his own life and experience. But of course we can never have it all sewn up, not even just for ourselves, let alone absolutely; not only is language capable only of gesturing towards what is really ineffable, but there are always new experiences, new people, new ideas coming along that may – indeed, must – affect the way we understand life and express that understanding. In any case, we all benefit from having other people challenge us about the conclusions we have drawn from our life and experience so far, because we may have allowed ourselves to develop a somewhat skewed view. No-one really learns much by simply accepting what a preacher has to say, which is why a sermon without a discussion afterwards never feels quite complete.
Preachers may have nothing to say about some text or topic that is rooted in their personal or pastoral experience. Perhaps when they have nothing to say, they should say nothing. Yet their hearers may be struggling, and would value help, with issues about which they can say nothing that is informed by their own experience. One way round the difficulty that has been used by clergy involves getting hold of a book of ready-made sermons. Another approach is to recycle traditional teaching in their own words, and yet another is to concentrate on the scholarly background to the day’s biblical text or on the theological meaning of the day’s celebration. Scholarship and theology have their place of course, but it’s not in the driving seat, as the people who remarked on the authoritativeness of Jesus’s teaching realised very well. Better perhaps to arrange things so that congregations hear from preachers who have a wide variety of life experience and have reflected on that experience in the light of the gospel. And it doesn’t all have to be what everyone would necessarily call savoury; I suspect I’d get more out of a sermon from the once-prodigal son than one from his brother.
You might think that it’s a bit bold of anyone to hope that their preaching should at its best draw the same kind of remark that Jesus’s did; surely, you might say, there is no need to learn from our own life and experience because all the necessary conclusions have already been drawn for us by Jesus, or maybe St Paul, or the Fathers, or the church. Yet Jesus, notably in his parables, repeatedly asked his hearers to reflect on what they knew of life around them, and no truly authoritative preaching ever tries to foist any kind of orthodoxy or convention onto the listeners; instead it invites each listener to explore his or her own understanding and experience by hinting at how the preacher has done the same. A loving disposition realises that each person’s understanding and experience are unique, and that of course they will lead them to their own unique religious position. That’s why the quest for religious orthodoxy is so dangerous: like law, it demands mere conformity and obedience, where love acknowledges difference and encourages creativity. The preachers who were unfavourably compared with Jesus were orthodox; he certainly wasn’t – and orthodoxy executed him for it. And that’s the paradox: it is only those who truly speak with authority who can dare to encourage their listeners to respond actively to their own lives and experience – who can dare, in other words, to allow their listeners to say not only, ‘Absolutely right!’, but also, ‘Hang on a minute, let’s talk about that …’