This is a strange story. In fact, on the surface it does not work at all; it hardly makes sense as a story. Repeated at the beginning and the end are three words which give us the central focus: amazed, teaching, and authority. The people at the synagogue that Sabbath day were amazed by Jesus’ teaching because he taught with authority.
So, in between this sandwich of words we expect to find the meat: Jesus’ “teaching.” But there is no teaching here. No parable, no lesson on prayer, no “you have heard it said by people of old… but I say unto you” – not even a beatitude.
The way Mark tells us this story, it does not work on the surface level at all – so we are driven to look deeper. And it is important that we do, because this story has an important message for us. Let us walk through this odd story and see where it takes us.
The Setting and the Invasion
First Mark bothers to tell us that Jesus was in Galilee’s big city Capernaum, and that he strode into the synagogue on the Sabbath and taught (1:21). All of the details are significant. The synagogues were like branch offices of the central temple in Jerusalem. Sacrifices could only be offered at the temple, but out in the provinces of Galilee, every town had a synagogue where the faithful gathered each Sabbath. For what? To hear the teaching by the local Rabbi. In other words, the people in power at the center exercised their control of the periphery by means of the synagogue system whose primary role was teaching.
Jesus barged in to that sacred space, on that holy day, and he took over. In fact he waited precisely until the Sabbath day to go to the synagogue and teach: he was not being subtle; he was being intentionally confrontational.
I had a picture of Jesus on my wall at home when I was growing up. He looked kind honest, polite, and thoughtful. I’m sure Jesus could be those things when that was called for, but if that is the only picture we have of him, it needs to be demolished. Why? Because that Jesus looks passive and harmless. Comforting, but irrelevant.
Jesus was not just a nice guy with gifts of healing that people found helpful. He had an agenda and a plan to accomplish it.
Have you ever seen a picture of Jesus poking his finger into someone’s chest in outright confrontation? Neither have I, but that is what is happening in this story. Jesus provokes a confrontation on purpose. He provokes it as publicly as possible, and he is not polite in the process.
Not leaving “things as they are”
This is the first take-away from this strange story in Mark. Jesus is not content with leaving things as they are, if “things as they are” are wrong. Jesus is confrontational; he is not handing out God-party invitations, he is asserting the authority of the kingdom of God in a world of opposition.
This is why what we do here, and what we are here is so serious. We are not a supper club nor a social club – we are not even a service club; we are the church, called into being by God, created to be a vanguard of his kingdom in this world.
Jesus is not the lonely kid looking for friends; he is the Lord, and he calls his people disciples. He is willing to confront evil on every level – on the world wide level, on the political level, and on the personal level. When he says “follow me” there is a wrong answer, and it is any answer but “yes.”
The 1st creed
The essential Christian creed, in fact the very first Christian creed is “Jesus is Lord.” This is first in priority as well as history. He is Lord first; friend second; shepherd second.
As Lord, he is not going to wink at evil. He is unwilling to turn away when there is hatred and violence, discrimination and intolerance, arrogance, selfishness and greed. Evil is destructive in all its forms, and none can be tolerated.
The Comfortable Demonic
Back to the story: what is the evil that Jesus confronts so assertively? Here Mark is depending on the fact that we are adults who understand irony and double-entendre. In that holy sacred space on that sacred Sabbath day, Jesus met a man. The man did not come there to find Jesus; Jesus just showed up and the man was already there. He was part of what was happening in that place on that day. No one was trying to remove him – the man was at home there. Mark describes him this way: he was a man who had an “unclean spirit.”
Another way to say “unclean spirit” is to say he was “demon possessed” – and he was, and Jesus performed and exorcism, but the way Mark chose to describe it was “unclean spirit.”
The essential requirement of being in a holy place like a synagogue at a holy time like Sabbath, is purity; sin makes a person impure, so do ritual prohibitions, like touching blood. Right in the heart of the synagogue, at home there, is a man who had an “unclean spirit.”
The meaning is unmistakable: Mark is signaling that the whole project of that outpost of teaching is rotten to the core. The teaching going on there is, in fact demonic; people are in bondage to a power over which they have no authority to escape.
The demon tried to overpower Jesus by the act of naming him, but Jesus rebuked it and commanded it literally to “shut up.” Again, Jesus was not trying to win the Mr. Congeniality prize; he was confronting evil – and he was confronting it with authority.
The demon shrieks and convulse the man as it departs. Jesus has cast it out.
So what was the teaching going on at that synagogue that was so demonic that it demanded a frontal assault?
Here is where this odd text is so powerful for us today, because the same demonic ideas need to be exercised today as well.
God and people
The first one that was being taught from that synagogue is about God himself: the idea that God cares about something besides people first. That is a demonic idea. The idea that he cares about ritual more than people, or that he cares about bloodlines more than people, or that he cares about rules more than people – that is demonic. God made every single person to bear his image. What could he care about more? So, it’s no good to keep yourself pure from blood contact if it means avoiding the man who was robbed on the Jericho road (as in the parable of the Good Samaritan). God demands that we stop, pick him up, get our hands dirty and bloody, and take responsibility for his care. To teach otherwise is to teach a demonic lesson.
People and then people
The second is closely connected: that God cares about some people more than others. That he cares about our ethnic group more than theirs; Jews more than Romans, Germans more than English, Serbs more than Croats, Suni more than Shiite; men more than women, caucasians more than African Americans – these are demonic ideas that Jesus will not tolerate. In the same story, remember it was the despised Samaritan who helped the victim – and he became the heroic “neighbor” of that teaching.
God and stinginess
Third, that God is stingy with his love and forgiveness, that he is withholding himself and his goodness until we reach some level of perfection; that is also a demonic idea. The idea that God has a check list, a rule book in which he keeps score – and we are of course way behind the game – a long way from being acceptably good, and therefore out of range of his goodness to us.
Now perhaps you detect an irony here – and you are well to. We began by speaking of God’s complete opposition to evil, his determined, authoritative confrontation of all that is destructive. Now are we sneaking in an escape hatch from this confrontation?
The goal of grace
No; rather the same God who made us in his image, who loves us, who wants our best is the one who hates it when we, or any of his people suffer injustice, oppression, discrimination, exclusion. He hates the way pride and arrogance tear apart relationships and communities. He is opposed to things that addict us, seduce us into covenant-breaking, or lull us into apathy. But his goal is not our destruction for being willing participants in evil, but our redemption from evil.
God calls us to be Jesus’ disciples; that is, learners, followers, not because we are good enough for him, but in order to change us, to make us into something we did not start out to be. We do not say yes to him because we are good, but because we know we are not good – but we hear his call, and we know he has the authority over the demonic forces at work in every human heart – ours included.
“… with authority”
We do not come to God to have our lifestyles validated, but rather to submit ourselves to his authority. If that means that he needs to confront the demonic in my life, so be it. Jesus is Lord. If this means he will challenge my values, so be it. If this means he will demolish some of my culture’s attitudes, expose my hypocrisy and blindness, my complicity and acceptance of “the way things are” – he has the right to do so.
And here is the final irony – that though the exorcism is painful, though the man convulses and it looks like the procedure has harmed him, the opposite is true. He has been liberated; released. That poor man was at the mercy of powers that held him in bondage to their malevolent desires – he was being used. Jesus set him free. Jesus rescued him from the kingdom of darkness to live a new life in the kingdom of God.
That is what he wants for everyone of us. Our freedom, our joy, our un-coerced response of love and obedience. This is amazing. Let the demons shriek: we are disciples!
So, on this sacred day, in this sacred space, we gather to learn; to deepen our understanding, to sit at his feet as his disciples and to be amazed at his teaching. We gather to re-affirm his authority in our lives. Then, we scatter from this sacred space to go out in to the world he has made as the vanguard of his kingdom in the world. We go out to take the power of his transforming love to the people in bondage to evil, to proclaim release and freedom.