And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes.
This verse always confused me.
One, this verse follows a series of teachings by Jesus that concludes with a fairly simple-sounding parable: Jesus tells his listeners that whoever listens to his words is like someone who builds his house on bedrock, whereas someone who does not listen to his words is like someone who builds on sand.
Now, that parable is not as simple as it sounds, but I’ll cover that in a future blog.
But imagine reading a fairly simple parable, then reading that the crowd gasped with astonishment at what Jesus was saying. As a reader in 21st-century America, I’m a little underwhelmed. “Astonished?” I think to myself. “It seems pretty straightforward.”
(Now, the crowds were likely gasping in astonishment at the totality of Jesus’ words, which have awed thinkers and philosophers for centuries, but that’s not the point).
I think what confused me was why they were astonished. “For he was teaching them as one who had authority.”
Authority? How is that astonishing?
What Does It Mean to Be an Authority When Everyone Else Is Talking Too?
In an age when quite literally everyone has a platform, and most people treat their platform as a pulpit, authority as we know it is kind of…cheap. For every thinker or writer who believes one thing, there’s 2 or 3 that believe 2 or 3 entirely different things. All of them write or talk like they’re the final word, so whose to say any one of them is a bigger “authority” than the others?
It also confused me because it’s not like Jesus lived in a time where there was a shortage of ruling authorities.
The Romans. Various Jewish sects. Conservative religious leaders. Zealots and revolutionaries. Everyone claimed to have an answer to the problems of the day, and certainly, none of them were claiming not to be an authority.
The specific verse here compares Jesus to the scribes, who were essentially lawyers. Their teachings were more akin to trial arguments—citing case law, precedent, and the words of other teachers and thinkers before them. Some commentaries say that the audience was astonished because Jesus was teaching without citing any previous teachers.
Still, not quite satisfied…until I read an informal translation of the verse by Kenneth Bailey, scholar of Biblical culture and teaching.
Bailey understood authority to be a power that was derived not just from the words Jesus was speaking, but from the wholeness of the picture.
He believes the verse can be translated this way:
…the crowds were astonished, for he was teaching them as one who truly lived out what he spoke, and not as their scribes.
The crowds weren’t just astonished at Jesus’ teaching, but that he had lived a life worthy of such lofty, high-reaching rhetoric. He walked as he talked—with utter certainty in the truth and power of his words. He had authority because there was perfect overlap between what he said and how he lived before the crowds.
For Christians, moral authority isn’t found in speaking louder, more eloquently, more often, or with more sources. It isn’t found in using the right verses for the right moment. It isn’t found—and as an armchair scholar, this one hurts—in the right interpretation or the correct reading.
It’s found in the simplest practice of all—living a life worthy of the words we speak.