Teaching, Authority, and Apprentice Jesus: A Biblical Reflection

April 25, 2013Marissa Werner

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As a Roman Catholic woman called to ordained ministry, I have had to confront a question arising from hierarchical opposition to women’s ordination, “What gives you women the authority to preach and to administer the Sacraments?”

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They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 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, throwing him into convulsions 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.’  (Mk 1:21-27, NRSV)


When I seek internally for a sense of my own authority to teach, I find an empty space — a specific empty space.  It resembles a corner of the narthex in my childhood church.  Arriving there Sundays with my parents, brother, and sister, I heard the vestibule door close behind us; felt my feet crossing slippery tiles toward sanctuary door; inhaled amalgamated fragrances of candle wax, communion hosts, flowers, and newsprint misalettes; and saw ushers, priests, and acolytes preparing for mass.  I prepared too — by casting out my girlness as though it were an unclean spirit.

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They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. (Mk 1:21-22)


What can we learn from studying Mark’s comparison?  Presuming “astounded” means a positive response to Jesus’ teaching, perhaps Mark tells us Jesus was a better teacher than the scribes of the Capernaum synagogue.    Or maybe Mark illustrates the elevated nature of Jesus’ teaching by comparing it favorably against that of those with an established reputation for knowledge.   Or, did the gospel writer have an ax to grind in regard to the scribes?  Although these angles are worthy of exploration, there is another option I find more useful here.

“Astounded” can mean a notable and surprising difference without regard to positive or negative, better or worse.  This leads me to ask what distinguished the authority of Jesus’ teaching from the authority of these scribes’ teaching.  Scribes’ authority derived from their encyclopedic knowledge of scripture and tradition, which made them an invaluable resource to their religious communities.  Probably a man became a scribe by studying under men who were scribes.  It seems reasonable to imagine this might at times have been passed down in families from father to son or uncle to nephew.

Matthew 13:55 tells us Jesus was a “carpenter’s son.”  Legend images Jesus as apprenticed to his father Joseph in carpentry.  The gospels, however, do not depict Jesus as carpenter.  In the gospels, Jesus teaches, heals, and gives people food. To whom was he apprenticed in these?

Why, to his mother of course . . .

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On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, ‘They have no wine.’ And Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.’ His mother said to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’ (Jn 2:1-5)


Although women of Jesus’ time were restricted from acting in the public sphere, the household was largely their domain.  There they educated the children (and servants or slaves if any), tended the sick, and prepared and served food.  The wedding in Cana story is compatible with Jesus having been apprenticed to Mary in these roles.

As far as we know, Jesus never married.  Nonetheless, at someone else’s wedding, Mary pushes him out of the nest.  The story begins, “On the third day,” meaning it is “the fullness of time;” it marks the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry.

Note the unspoken yet mutually understood meanings in this telling exchange:   Mary says, “They have no wine;” Jesus hears something like, “The wine has run out, so help everyone out by doing what I know you can do.”  Jesus refuses, “My hour has not come.”  Mary hears something like, “I don’t feel ready to grow up and leave home.”  But she remains confident that Jesus will understand and follow through.  “Do whatever he tells you,” she says to the servants.  It is the confidence of a teacher who knows her disciple is ready for commencement.

Mary’s teaching is sacramental — “mediating the grace of God through the concrete stuff of creation for the sanctification of human communities and the well-being of all God’s creation” (Moore, 10). At the wedding in Cana she presides over the sacrament of Jesus’ marriage to public ministry.  Mary is able to mediate God’s grace because she meditates on it: “But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart” (Lk 2:19). She teaches in intimate connection with daily life: “They have no wine.”  And her teaching has healing effect in human communities – as, in this case, the community is able to fully celebrate the wedding. 

I believe these things account for the astoundingly different type of authority heard in Jesus’ teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.  It is sacramental, and he learned it from his mom.  Since women didn’t teach in the synagogue, people weren’t used to this type of teaching there.  No wonder they were astounded.

So what gives me the authority to teach?  I guess it could be Mary, taking a seat in the part of my heart that is a corner of the narthex of my childhood church (St. Mary of the Mills, by the way), saying, “They have no . . .”   For if Mary was Jesus’ first role model of teaching, healing, and sharing meals as sacramental acts, then gender is no obstacle to effectively administering sacraments that pertain to any of these.  But maybe we women should refrain from carpentry?



Moore, Mary Elizabeth. 2004. Teaching as a Sacramental Act. Cleveland: Pilgrim Press.

  • zebbart

    The sine qua non for priesthood is the offering of sacrifice for the expiation of sins. It is in that capacity that Jesus is our eternal high priest and for that reason the parish priests stands in for Jesus in the divine liturgy. Everything else that goes with Catholic priesthood- teaching authority, administration, counseling, etc. are non-priestly functions that have circumstantially been added into the practice of priesthood, but could be removed and given to non-priests without diminishing or transforming the essence of priesthood. It seems pretty rare to find advocates for female priesthood actually advocating for women to have that essential priestly role, but rather it seems they want to open the other functions and positions to women. And I think a third way could be opened up if everyone would focus on expanding gender equivalence where we can according to functions and roles rather than according to titles.

    • http://www.facebook.com/gregory.williams.3572 Gregory Williams

      ““How are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without a preacher? And how can men preach unless they are sent?”390 No one—no individual and no community—can proclaim the Gospel to himself: “Faith comes from what is heard.”391 No one can give himself the mandate and the mission to proclaim the Gospel. The one sent by the Lord does not speak and act on his own authority, but by virtue of Christ’s authority; not as a member of the community, but speaking to it in the name of Christ. No one can bestow grace on himself; it must be given and offered. This fact presupposes ministers of grace, authorized and empowered by Christ. From him, bishops and priests receive the mission and faculty (“the sacred power”) to act in persona Christi Capitis; deacons receive the strength to serve the people of God in the diaconia of liturgy, word, and charity, in communion with the bishop and his presbyterate. The ministry in which Christ’s emissaries do and give by God’s grace what they cannot do and give by their own powers, is called a “sacrament” by the Church’s tradition. Indeed, the ministry of the Church is conferred by a special sacrament.”

      - The Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church, Three, 4, I, 875

      It seems pretty clear that the Roman Catholic Church claims that its priests have significant teaching authority and to hold this in at least as high a regard as sacramental authority. It would be more accurate to say that Catholics view teaching and sacramental authority as inseparable.

  • http://newaustralianwineskins.wordpress.com/ John T.

    Mark 6:3 does identify Jesus as a carpenter, not simply the son of a carpenter. Why do you assume that a carpenter cannot teach, heal and give people food?

    Women did teach in the New Testament -

    Acts 18:26 “And he (Apollos) began to speak boldly in the synagogue: whom when Aquila and Priscilla had heard, they took him unto them, and expounded unto him the way of God more perfectly.”

    Acts 21:9 “And the same man (Phillip) had four daughters, virgins, which did prophesy.”

    Women did teach in the temple –

    Luke 2:36 “There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, who belonged to the tribe of Asher. She was very old. After she married, she lived with her husband for seven years. 37 She was now an 84-year-old widow. She never left the temple area but worshipped God with fasting and prayer night and day. 38 She approached at that very moment and began to praise God and to speak about Jesus to everyone who was looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.”

    Women were ordained as disciples (there was no other sort of ordination) -

    Acts 9:36 “Now there was at Joppa a certain disciple named Tabitha”

    The sanctification of femininity and the exclusion of women from religious authority are two sides of the same coin – and it does not come from the bible. I do not think the cult of Mary is a very helpful thing for the equality of women in the church or broader society.

    • christ.member

      Studying or becoming?
      Radicals believe in all the Word of God. Religion use the Scripture to support their doctrine, as Satan to convince to do good things that are not God.
      Is easy to leave parts of the Word of God when it will injure our flesh. Do you want to see an example? here you are:

      MARRYING AND “DISMARRYING” In the life of the Church


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