Thought for the day
How often do we meet people whose words and deeds match? Sometimes at least, but it may be rare enough. In the old expression, when all is said and done, more is said than done. Jesus is a teacher with authority — not the authority of position or force but power from within. This is suggested by the Greek word for authority exousia, from within (my) being. Even today, there are religious leaders who speak from within, whose word is genuine, whose deeds match what they say. These are the one we listen to; these are the ones we would love to be like.
Loving God, you love us wholly and your desire is that we become both whole and holy. Help us to take the Good News to heart. May we become fully mature in Christ, so that our inner and outer selves are one. Through Christ our Lord. Amen
Mark 1:21 Then they went to Capernaum. When the Sabbath came, Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach. 22 The people there were amazed by his teaching, because he taught them like one who had authority, not like the experts in the law. 23 Just then there was a man in their synagogue with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, 24 “Leave us alone, Jesus the Nazarene! Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!” 25 But Jesus rebuked him: “Silence! Come out of him!” 26 After throwing him into convulsions, the unclean spirit cried out with a loud voice and came out of him. 27 They were all amazed so that they asked each other, “What is this? A new teaching with authority! He even commands the unclean spirits and they obey him.” 28 So the news about him spread quickly throughout all the region around Galilee..
At the start of the Gospel of Mark, the reader is fully informed about the identity of Jesus: the Christ, the Son of God. This insider knowledge places the reader in an unusual relationship with the actors in the story itself. The reader is not wondering “who will Jesus turn out to be?”, but rather, “Will the actors in the story come to the same insight” or “How will they make the journey of faith?” Apart from Jesus, the only named characters present across the narrative are the disciples and so, with our special knowledge, we watch them stumble towards a recognition of who Jesus is. Other characters, such as the people and Pharisees/scribes react with static amazement (the people) or active hostility (the Pharisees/scribes).
The demons in the story are in a different category. They belong to the spiritual world and they know exactly who Jesus is. They serve as an example of the timely warning in James: “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder” (James 2:19-20). Accurate doctrine (orthodoxy) is not enough, Mark seems to be saying.
Within the narrative, the demons serve two purposes. Firstly, from time to time, they remind the reader of the genuine identity of Jesus, which might be obscured in the whirlwind action of Mark and in the sheer variety of reactions to Jesus. Secondly, they identify the real opponent of Jesus in this narrative—not the scribes or Pharisees or priests or even the Romans, but rather the power of evil as such.
Kind of writing
There are two stories here—the teaching of Jesus and the exorcism. The theme in both is the authority of Jesus and the second story serves to illustrate the first. Mark intends to show Jesus as someone with effective power over the forces of evil. This primary focus helps to account for odd features of the story. For instance, in later stories the timing of a healing on a Sabbath precisely causes considerable controversy, but not here, because this is not the focus. Again, a miracle story is only partially present here. Usually, the features of a miracle story are: someone is unwell in some way, the person encounters Jesus, a request is made, a word or gesture is given, the cure is immediate and, finally, some action demonstrates the completeness of the cure (walking away, cooking a dinner). In this story, the man is not really that important—there is no encounter/request and there is no proof of the cure.
Instead, the writer wants to profile Jesus’ effectiveness against the cause of the condition in the first place, that is, the forces of evil. This is confirmed by the reaction to the exorcism, which is all about Jesus and not at all about the man cured. He is not even told to be silent about it—an intriguing feature of later more spectacular miracles.
Old Testament background
In the worlds of both the Old and the New Testaments, illnesses of various kinds are attributed to unclean spirits and demons.
New Testament foreground
The destruction of the demons in Mark 5 illustrates the continued struggle and ultimate victory over the forces of destruction in life.
Then Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” He replied, “My name is Legion; for we are many.” He begged him earnestly not to send them out of the country. Now there on the hillside a great herd of swine was feeding; and the unclean spirits begged him, “Send us into the swine; let us enter them.” So he gave them permission. And the unclean spirits came out and entered the swine; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the sea, and were drowned in the sea. (Mark 5:9-13)
Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. But law came in, with the result that the trespass multiplied; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, just as sin exercised dominion in death, so grace might also exercise dominion through justification leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 5:18-21)
Verse 21 Capernaum comes back a few times in this Gospel Mark (1:21; 2:1; 9:33). The Sabbath is a point of controversy later in the Gospel, though not here (Mark 1:21; 2:23-24, 27-28; 3:2, 4; 6:2; 16:1-2, 9). Synagogues are mentioned regularly in this gospel (Mark 1:21, 23, 29, 39; 3:1; 6:2; 12:39; 13:9).
Jesus is frequently said to teach in this Gospel (Mark 1:21-22; 2:13; 4:1-2; 6:2, 6, 30, 34; 7:7; 8:31; 9:31; 10:1; 11:17; 12:14, 35; 14:49), although the gospel offers only a few examples of such teaching.
Verse 22 The reaction of astonishment turns out to be fairly static—those who experience it seems to make very little of it (Mark 1:22; 6:2; 7:37; 10:26; 11:18). The authority of Jesus remains an important part of the Gospel narrative, leading later to the controversies (Mark 1:22, 27; 2:10; 3:15; 6:7; 11:28-29, 33; 13:34).
Verse 23 In a tiny slip, which may be revealing, Mark refers to their synagogues. He is writing, therefore, in the context of a the break with the mother religion. Unclean spirits (Mark 1:23, 26-27; 3:11, 30; 5:2, 8, 13; 6:7; 7:25; 9:25) at the period could refer to any type of psychosomatic or psychological illness.
In a pre-scientific world, the air was full of demons and many illnesses and misfortunes were attributed to such forces. Today, we would give another account, while not denying that a person is suffering not only this or that disease but experiencing through that particular experience something of the fracture or evil in this world.
Verse 24 Jesus is addressed with his full name as a human being and as the Holy One of God. In this culture, names have power (nomen omen) and using the name is an attempt to get control over Jesus. That is why Jesus’ first command to the demon is to be silent.
The question about destruction is highly ironic because that is precisely why Jesus has come—to break the grip of evil on the lives of human beings.
In Mark 5, the conflict with the forces of evil comes out into the open and the result is the destruction of the demons. Notice, by the way, the absolutely orthodox affirmations of the unclean spirit!!
Verse 25 Jesus rebuked him. This does occur later in the Gospel in a most interesting pattern. Jesus later rebukes unclean spirits (Mark 1:25; 4:39; 9:25) and Peter and the disciples (Mark 3:12; 8:30, 32-33; 9:25), who thereby show which side they are on! “Be silent” will be next said to the wind in the storm at sea event.
Verse 26 Convulsing suggests epilepsy as in: After crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out, and the boy was like a corpse, so that most of them said, ‘He is dead.’ (Mark 9:26)
Verse 27 Amazement is always a static reaction in Mark’s narrative. Nevertheless, the question is an open one. The evaluation which follows is accurate—Jesus does what he teaches.
Verse 28 Mark’s narrative is quickly, even breathlessly, told and so surprisingly early on Jesus’ fame spreads widely.
Pointers for prayer
1. In the first chapter, Mark familiarises his readers with the type of things Jesus did to proclaim the kingdom, the Reign of God. Our passage today touches on two of these, the first being that ‘he taught as one having authority’. It makes a difference when you listen to someone who is clearly speaking from experience and personal knowledge. Remember people who impressed you in this way.
2. Jesus’ combined teaching with healing, and he drove the evil spirit out of the man. The power of God that worked this wonder through Jesus is also at work in and through us today. When have you been freed from some bad habit?
3. The evil spirit convulsed the man before it left him. The path to liberation can be a painful struggle. If you have found it so, who was the Jesus person that helped you through the struggle to freedom?
4. It is not only individuals but groups that can be struggling with an evil spirit – jealousy, rivalry, malicious gossiping, abuse of power, etc. Sometimes a Jesus person comes into the group and drives out that evil spirit. Have you experienced this? Perhaps you yourself have been this person on some occasion?
Faithful God, your Holy One, Jesus of Nazareth, spoke the truth with authority, and you confirmed his teaching by wonderful deeds.
Through his healing presence, drive far from us all that is unholy, so that by word and deed we may proclaim him Messiah and Lord and bear witness to your power to heal and save.
We make our prayer through our Lord Jesus Christ who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.