Luke 4:31-44, Jesus Begins His Work in Capernaum

[April 14, 2013] I choose Luke 4:31-44 as an Easter text because I want to stay with Luke for the remainder of the church year (I give further attention to John at other times) and because I think it can appropriately follow the lessons we had from Jesus’ appearance to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, which demonstrated the nature of the Christian gathering on the Lord’s Day. (Luke 4:31-44 is skipped over by the Lectionary; its parallel passage in Mark is covered during Epiphany in Year B.) Luke 4:31-44 outlines the establishment of Jesus’ work in Capernaum, which is a model of how the risen Christ establishes His work among us, in our lives and in our communities. Luke, while portraying Christ as the Savior of the world, also portrays Christ as the exemplar apostolic Worker and the Prototype of our life in the Spirit.

The main comparison between the gospels that I make is with Matthew’s gospel, since the best hypothesis seems to me to be that Luke had a copy of Matthew’s Jewish aggada of Jesus in front of him and used it extensively as he rearranged and wove it together with his field notes to create his own Hellenic bios of Jesus. Mark’s gospel came later as Mark’s record of the apostle Peter ratifying the Gospel according to Luke by his own retelling the Gospel using the scrolls of both Matthew and Luke, weaving the two together in a harmony akin to what Tatian would accomplish in the second century with the Diatessaron, using all four gospels. Mark’s gospel contains Peter’s eyewitness testimony, but otherwise it is dependent textually on the gospels of Matthew and Luke. This is approach is known in scholarly circles as the Two Gospel Hypothesis. (It bypasses the need for the Q hypothesis. It also, at least in my version of it, gives us earlier dates for when the gospels were written and published. I propose that Luke’s gospel was completed in 56 C.E., even if we propose a publishing date in the 60s.)

“And He came down to Capernaum, a city of Galilee.” Matthew 4:13 tells us that when Jesus came to Galilee He went to Nazareth, and “leaving Nazareth, He came and settled in Capernaum.” He gives no description of Jesus’ visit to Nazareth at that point (but see Matthew 13:54-58). Luke, however, inaugurates Jesus’ Galilean ministry with Jesus’ proclamation in Nazareth of the messianic Year of Jubilee—foretold in the scroll of the prophet Isaiah—and gives us a foreshadowing of the Gospels’ reaching out to the gentiles and the negative reaction of the “Judaizers” (the movement of nascent Zealotry within world Jewry) that we see in the Acts of the Apostles (the second volume of Luke’s literary work). Luke’s account of Jesus’ visit to Nazareth—which Luke uses to introduce Jesus’ apostolate (or mission)—is dominated by the theme of the Jubilee, which is liberation.

(Actually, Luke 4:23, which assumes that Jesus had already been ministering in Capernaum  and had a reputation, shows that Luke had moved the Nazareth story out of its chronological sequence in order to place it at the beginning.)

Capernaum, Kfar Nahum (literally, “the village of Nahum”), was a fishing village of about 1500 people. It “was an important toll station on the trade route from Ptolemais to Damascus and a port for maritime trade with Philip’s tetrarchy and the Decapolis” [The Interpreter’s Bible , volume VIII (New York: Abingden Press, 1952), page 96]. It has been the site of extensive archaeological work. The second century synagogue uncovered (one of the oldest in the world) is built on the one in which Jesus preached, and across the street, between the synagogue and the lakeshore, they have discovered what they believe was the home of Peter and his wife and her mother. It was a single-level home built around a shared courtyard, having a cobble floor and walls of basalt blocks reinforced with stone and mud (no mortar was used). The roof would have been of light wooden beams and thatch mixed with mud [Wikipedia].

The Synagogue in Capernaum (Luke 4:31-37)

Jesus “was teaching them on the Sabbath … in the synagogue there.” A typical synagogue service of worship consisted of the recitation of the Shema (“Hear, O Israel,” etc.), a prayer, a fixed reading from the Torah, a free reading from the Prophets, an explanation and application of one or both of the Scripture passages, and a blessing by a priest or a prayer by a layman. The Scripture was read in Hebrew and translated, verse by verse, into Aramaic. An invitation to read and to preach could be extended by the ruler elders to any competent member of the congregation or visitor. It was the practice to stand up to read and sit down to preach. [See The Interpreter’s Bible, volume VIII (New York: Abingden Press, 1952), page 86.]

In Luke 4:14 and 37 we have what is call an inclusio that frames the two synagogue accounts together. Luke used this method in his composition to group passages together or to frame a single passage. “News about Him spread through all the surrounding district … the report about Him was spreading into every locality in the surrounding district.” The two synagogue stories, then, beg for comparison. In His hometown He proclaimed the Gospel; in Capernaum Luke says He taught but does not say what He taught (Luke only speaks of “His word,” logos). But while in Nazareth the people at first were all speaking well of Him, “wondering at the gracious words which were falling from His lips,” they then turned on Him and “were filled with rage” and attempted to kill Him. In Capernaum “they were amazed at His teaching, for His message was with authority,” and after the exorcism, “amazement came upon them all, and they began talking with one another saying, ‘What is this message? For with authority and power He commands the unclean spirits and they come out.” The reaction in the two synagogues is the opposite.

Another telling comparison is that after Jesus began to preach in Nazareth, the people were saying, “Is this not Joseph’s Son?” not recognizing Him as Who He was claiming to be, but in Capernaum a man having a demon interrupted Him with a loud voice and proclaimed, “I know Who You are—the Holy One of God!” a messianic title. The irony is telling, for in the first instance the people who did not recognize Him were at first “all speaking well of Him and wondering at the gracious words which were falling from His lips,” whereas in the second instance the man who did recognize Him had a demon and was quite bothered by Jesus: “Let us alone!” (Literally, “Ah!”) “What business do we have with each other, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?” In the first instance, the people who were so pleased with Jesus turned against Him. In the second instance, the man who was so manifested agitated by Jesus was liberated from what was afflicting him so that everyone was amazed.

In Nazareth the people presumed familiarity with Jesus and therefore could not hear Him. In Capernaum Jesus was more of a novelty, and so the people paid more attention. People presume familiarity with Jesus and therefore make all sorts of false assumptions about the Gospel: sometimes strange caricatures and stereotypes, and sometimes weird identifications with cultural values or popular ideals.

Focusing now on the synagogue in Capernaum, we see in the beginning that the people “were amazed at His teaching, for His message was with authority,” and at the end they are remarking, “What is this message (logos)? For with authority and power He commands the unclean spirits and they come out.” This authority continues to resonate in the rest of Luke’s gospel. By framing the story with this mention of Jesus’ authority, Luke is highlighting it. The word or message, as we saw in Nazareth, is Himself as the Coming One. His authority is this assertion of Himself. He did not present Himself as a scribe, who was dependent on the interpretations handed down by others, but was an original Interpreter of the Scriptures, and taught with confidence. His authority was the authority therefore of the Scriptures themselves. But His authority was not simply derivative. For the Scriptures which He interpreted spoke of Him; He was the fulfillment of them. Their authority derives from Him! Though this was not said explicitly, it is implied in verses 18-21, and if we follow and accept that, that is the authority that is before us in this passage, it is the authority of His Person.

The man having the demon addresses Jesus as “Jesus of Nazareth.” Was the man in Nazareth when Jesus preached? It does not matter, for the mention of Nazareth connects the reader to what had just happened there and therefore to Jesus’ message and the synagogue’s reaction. The reader was there and “witnessed” it, even if the man had not been.

Ea, ti hēmin kai soi. Literally, “Ah! What—to us and to you?” Let us alone! Go away! What business do we have with each other? “Have You come to destroy us?” Who is speaking here? We can say that it is the demon speaking on behalf of other demons, and we can extend that to the whole realm of Satan. Demons, however, exist in people or at least in the collective psyche of people, not as disembodied spirits apart from human beings (the pigs in Luke 8:33 being an exception). In other words, they exist in the “world” as distinguished from the creation; and the world is the field of which Satan has dominion. Demons are a personal affliction that manifests the pathology of that dominion.

Consider this however: If a person stands up and says something like this man did, in the midst of a synagogue, would we normally assume that he was speaking as the mouthpiece of a demon speaking on behalf of the demons? Or would we not assume that he was speaking as a member of the synagogue or the Capernaum community represented by it? When he says, “What business do we have with each other? Have You come to destroy us?” he is a man speaking about—and perhaps on behalf of—the people of Capernaum, and the synagogue community in particular.

The demon, in that case, would have been a manifestation of a power that had the community under its influence. When the man spoke, it was not just the demon that afflicted him personally that spoke, but it was the Satanic power that held the community (whether synagogue or town or both) in its thrall.

We are not told that the man was known to have a demon. Perhaps he was. Or perhaps it was the preaching of Jesus and the man’s reaction to it that made it apparent to Jesus that he was a man in the grip of a demon.

We go from having a primitive notion of demons as disembodied spirits floating around in the air looking for people they can possess (perhaps if their minds and wills are passive, they can move in and take control), to identifying demoniacs as people with mental illness or particular kinds of mental illness (say, schizophrenia). I look at it differently. First of all, the passage does not say that the man was possessed by a demon (the demon had him) but rather that “he had (he was “a man having,” echōn) a demon, or literally, the spirit of an unclean demon. People did attribute all kinds of pathologies, afflictions both physical and mental, to demons, and they brought those whom they had diagnosed this way to Jesus to be freed. Jesus cast out the demons. It is interesting, however, that this problem seems far more prominent in the Palestine of the gospels than in the gentile world of the Acts, even though historically, the Hellenic (gentile) world in which these writings were composed saw demons everywhere. It is also interesting that the demons in the gospels (and in Acts16:17) recognized Jesus. They liked to cry out, “You are the Son of God” (verse 41). Mark’s account says, “they knew Who He was” (Mark 1:34). Luke says they knew He was the Messiah. They knew Who He was, but they were not pleased with this. The man with the legion of demons (Luke 8:28), after saying the familiar “What business do we have with each other?” said to Jesus, “I beg You, do not torment me.”

What is this phenomenon that Jesus is addressing when He casts out demons, then? Both the words, “world” (kosmos) and “age” (aeon) have a connotation in the New Testament that differs from how we ordinarily use the words. This particular connotation refers to the collective psyche as a gestalt with spiritual implications. They refer to the collective psyche under the dominion of powers, powers that are far greater than the individual, but powers that reflect the primal dominion of Satan. The world is the collective attempt to construct a mental landscape that hermetically seals out reality in order to exclude God. In other words, the world is a delusion, constructed by human beings in order to blind them to the reality of God, and in doing so it blinds them to created reality as well. Our civilization depends on upholding this delusion; it governs all of our lives, at least on the practical level, for if a person does not at least play along, the society has a way of making this person’s life unbearable, if not impossible. The world punishes those who do not conform. So we all live with it. There is nothing innocent about the world, however. It is an intentional form of rebellion against God to which every individual assents. Most of the time, however, the rebellion does not become manifest as such. It lies under the surface. When it peeks its head up, this is the phenomenon of the demonic. When an individual manifests the world in the form of pathology, this is demonic. In this case, many illnesses are such manifestations, both physical and mental. In the presence of Jesus, however, the manifestation takes a more overt form. The demon recognizes Jesus as a threat to its very existence. The revelation of His Person breaks the power of the world’s delusion and has the power to dissolve it. The demon recognizes Jesus as the liberator, but in its own case, the liberation of the human being means its own destruction. And so, when people bring the demoniacs to Jesus, the bearing of His presence causes them to recognize Him and they often cry out, “I know Who You are! You are the Holy One!” or “You are the Son of God!”

Jesus rebukes the demon in each case, and commands the demon to come out of the individual, thus liberating the individual from its grip. “Be quiet and come out of him!” This is the authority of His Person that commands the demon, the very Person Whom the demon recognizes. When Jesus speaks this liberating word, the delusion of the world collapses temporarily (until the person’s psyche builds it back up again around a different nexus), enough to break the pathology. It will take the pathway of discipleship (and the way of the cross) to sustain and further the liberation.

What is this authority that liberates? It is the revelation of His own Person, which reveals the Triune God the reality of creation, and our salvation (and divinization) in Him. He, in His humanity, is the divine “I AM” (with the divine nature) Who has taken on our human nature. And it is Who He is as He loves us, taking our burden upon Himself: the wrath of God under which we live moment by moment, and which we face as the condemnation of our lives in their entirety, and the repentance that is required of us to become free and to stand before the Father as He does, in all the grace, beneficence, beatitude and love of Him—carrying it to the cross.

Our own liberation, and the liberation of our churches, comes from the Gospel which contains this revelation. When we lose the Gospel, we come under the powers of the world. Then the church functions as a cultural social phenomenon, used by the world instead of being the kingdom’s beachhead against the world. Often churches represent the very worst aspects of the society, its prejudices, its self-righteousness, its hypocrisy and corruptions, its pettiness, its political idolatry, its idolatry to social symbols, to technology, and so on. This is the phenomenon of the demonic, even if there are not cases of individuals “having” a demon. Only the Gospel itself, by the power of the Holy Spirit, can save the church.

Well! Jesus liberates this poor man who spoke on behalf of all demons and also on behalf of the people around him, and in doing so, Jesus liberated the synagogue of its subjugation to the powers of the world, at least enough that He could continue to preach there. Jesus, in other words, is making spiritual territory for Himself in Capernaum, beginning with the synagogue.

The synagogue is a community that is called by, gathers around, and is formed by the Scriptures; it is a community of the Word. So is the church. Our work begins with the liberation and restoration of the community of the Word.

The story of the synagogue demoniac is not in Matthew’s gospel. Luke had gotten it from his own research. It is collaborated in Mark’s gospel, however, which shows that Peter remembered it.

The Household of Peter (4:38-39)

Jesus “got up and left the synagogue and entered Simon’s home.” We are not told much here. In Matthew’s account by the time we get to this story (8:14-15) Jesus has already called Peter to follow Him. In Luke, however, Peter (Simon) appears here for the first time. In Mark’s (Peter’s) reminiscence, “Immediately after they came out of the synagogue, they came into the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John.” So after the Sabbath worship at the synagogue, they—these five—crossed the street to the home of Peter and his wife and her mother and Andrew, Peter’s brother. Luke tells the story of Peter being finally freed from his preoccupation with fishing in chapter 5 but Jesus may have already called these four men—Peter and his brother Andrew and James and his brother John—to follow Him as disciples (students or apprentices).

Jesus apparently, however, had not been privy to Peter’s personal life before this. It seems—at least, this is my impression—that Peter’s mother-in-law did not get sick only that morning. So when Jesus came into Peter’s home (did He invite Himself?), He discovers (see Matthew 8:16) that Peter’s mother-in-law “was suffering from a high fever.” Only now do they ask Him to help her (see Mark 1:30). The woman did not just have a fever, but she was held fast by it, she was in its grip (synechō + dative). So in other words, Jesus came to this household but the household was in disarray. The ordinary hospitality that would have been offered to Him is restricted because Peter’s wife’s mother is in the grip of a fever that will not relent. Hopefully Peter too, but at least his wife is distraught for the sake of her mother. The normal routine and pace of family life and the household is disrupted. Not only is the woman sick, but as it happens with us, the whole household is “sick.”

Luke tells us that Jesus stands over her (at the head of the bed?) and He rebukes the fever—as if it had an intelligence—and it leaves her.  Matthew tells us that it is when He touched her hand that the fever left her, and Mark says it was when “He raised her up, taking her by the hand,” that the fever left her. Let us pay attention to Luke’s version here, however. The fever that is threatening the woman’s life is not just a temperature. It is apparently another demon. Jesus does not simply heal her; it leaves when He rebukes it. We cannot say much more than that here, except to notice that what took place in the synagogue (with much more drama, the demon recognizing Jesus and speaking) also takes place in this household. Jesus liberates Peter’s household from the grip of a demon the way He liberated the synagogue.

Once the fever leaves, Peter’s wife’s mother gets up and waits on them. Putting aside the critique of the patriarchal household (it is a little anachronistic to impose our modern urban values on Galilean Jewry), notice that the atmosphere of hospitality that should have met Jesus when He came to Peter’s house is now restored. The household has a major place as a setting in the Gospel according to Luke, and even in the Acts of the Apostles. Women also are visible to Luke, which is often not the case elsewhere. The household is not simply the domicile of the patriarch; it is created by the women who are present, who have lives of their own and are not there simply to serve the patriarch and his male heirs. In any case, when Jesus frees Peter’s wife’s mother from the fever, He restores the household to normalcy, which is evident by the woman waiting on Jesus and the other guests. Hospitality is the mark of the Christian household throughout the New Testament, and we begin to see it right here. One of the things about the hospitality of the Christian home is that every Christian home is a place where disciples are free to come and where neighbors can be invited and included in the fellowship of love and truth (the reality).

So after Jesus frees the synagogue (the community of the Word), He frees the homes of the disciples. The household of Peter and his wife now becomes available as a place where Jesus—and those with Jesus—can be, can stay. This follows the order of Matthew’s gospel: In chapter 18 Jesus describes the proper life between His believers; chapter 19—20:16 then addresses their home life (marriage, children, property, etc.)—all under the theme of the bearing of the kingdom on the church.

The People of the Town (5:40-41)

When the sun was setting, that is, when the Sabbath was over and work could now be done, “all those who had any who were sick with various diseases brought them to [Jesus]; and laying His hands on each one of them, He was healing them. Demons also were coming out of many, shouting, ‘You are the Son of God!’ But rebuking them, He would not allow them to speak, because they knew Him to be the Christ.”

In Matthew (8:16) it is those who were demonized (daimonizomai) who were brought to Him and who were not only freed of their spirits but were healed of whatever illnesses they had. In Mark (1:32) it was both the ill and the demonized were brought to Him. In Luke however it is those who were sick with various diseases who were brought. Mark’s account apparently combines the two. In Matthew many were brought to Him; in Luke all those who had any who were sick brought them to Him; but in Mark the whole town was gathered at the door. Luke says He laid hands on each of the sick and healed them; but Mark tells us that He healed many and cast out many demons. In Mark the demonized know Who He is. In Luke they know He is the Christ (the Messiah). It is interesting that while Luke emphasized that the fever of Peter’s mother-in-law was the manifestation of a demon (while Matthew does not), here he refers only to the sick when Matthew refers only to the demonized. Nevertheless, that Jesus cast out demons here is brought out by all three gospels.

The people brought their sick to the house of Peter and his wife, and there Jesus healed them. This would not have been possible if Peter’s household had not first been restored. The people and their sick represent a wider group than those who attended the synagogue earlier in the day. The synagogue is the community of the Word; even in Capernaum not everyone attended the synagogue and not everyone was a practicing Jew. The people who came out in the evening represent the whole town. Mark gives this impression when he wrote that the whole town was gathered at the door. The restoration of the household means that the household becomes available to the town, or rather as a way for the kingdom of God (the messianic Jubilee) to have access to the town, to reach the lives of the people in the town. Rather than seeking power over others (through the political system), the way of the kingdom—of the Spirit—is through the root system of the community, through the interconnected lives of the people as they live their lives, the “deeply woven roots” that feed community life (using the excellent phrase of Gary Gunderson, who has a book by this title published by Augsburg Fortress in 1997).

Demons come up for the third time: first overtly in the synagogue, implicitly in the healing of Peter’s wife’s mother, and now among the sick who were brought to Jesus. Their removal from people in each case represents social territory that has been won—the synagogue, the household, and now the town. The Jubilee that Jesus is initiating through His anointing by the Spirit breaks down demonic oppression before it does anything else. This shows that the liberation that Jesus brings is liberation from the powers exerted by the world as a gestalt. To focus only on social liberation is short-sighted, as the Christian Ivan Illich made clear in his insightful and scholarly social critiques. Socialism may be necessary in the highly complex economies of modern countries as a way to address the inevitable and gross injustices of capitalism (a system that depends on greed and avarice). But bureaucratic socialism itself brings a form of totalitarianism (distinct from dictatorship) in which the government has a hand in everything, a system that inevitably demands conformity and is quite oppressive in its own way. One way or the other, it is still the world. The Holy Spirit cannot remove us from the world (as long as we live in society) but She can break its spiritual power over us, the trance of its delusion.

The New Testament, or shall we say, the apostolate, has a particular interest in the polis (Greek), meaning the town or locality, or in Middle English, the parische (from Greek, paroikia, a neighborhood: from para, meaning “near,” and oikos, meaning “house”). The church is always the church of a polis, a locality or parish, never of a party organization (a brand, or a presbytery or federation or covenant or denomination, or a corporation). The word church, ekklēsia, is the called gathering of the polis; it is the governing council that represents the polis. We are called by the Lord Jesus (the revelation of Him in the Gospel) together, and together we come under the government of the Holy Spirit on behalf of the entire polis. The church is supposed to be the assembly where the kingdom of God is in the midst of the world. (When it comes to the “kingdom of God,” kingdom, kingship or reigning has the connotation of conquering or overcoming that which opposes God.) The world has usurped our souls over which it has no right. The kingdom of God is the restoration of our souls to reality. As the church we bear our neighbors to God as priests and we reveal God to our neighbors as prophets. The church is “called out of” (ek) the world, but it does not leave the polis behind; it represents the governmental (and military) interests of God over and on behalf of the polis.

The coming of our neighbors to our homes—that is, into the hospitality of our lives as persons (in personal interconnection with others)—to be healed by Jesus and for Jesus to liberate them from their bondage to the world (as He casts out their demons), is how Jesus plants the banner of the kingdom in the towns in which we live.

The agenda of the apostolate is therefore to establish the testimony of Jesus in every locality, which “testimony” is a properly functioning local church (as seen in our homes and in the gathering of the community of the Word).

It is the natural outcome of the establishment or the restoration of the community of the Word (verses 31-37), and the restoration of the disciples’ households (verses 38-39), that the neighbors in the polis are also affected by the Lord’s Jubilee (verses 40-41).

The Work in Surrounding Towns (5:42-44)

“When day came, Jesus left and went to a secluded place; and the crowds were searching for Him, and tried to keep Him from going away from them. But He said to them, ‘I must preach the kingdom of God to the other cities also, for I was sent for this purpose.’ So He kept on preaching in the synagogues of Judea.” Mark’s parallel version (1:35-38) says that “in the early morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house, and went away to a secluded place, and was praying there.” Luke makes no mention of what Jesus was doing out there, so Mark fills in this information. In Luke the crowds (presumably the ones who were at the house the night before) were searching for Him, but in Mark it is Simon and those with him. In Luke they were trying to keep Him from leaving (Luke uses the imperfect indicative to give the impression of their eager clamoring after Him); in Mark Simon simply says that “Everyone is looking for You.” In Luke Jesus says He must preach to the other cities or towns, using the plural of the word polis. In Mark He uses the plural of the word kōmopolis (from kōmē-polis), which means an unwalled or rural market village, as opposed to a simply a small “village” where field workers lived. In Luke Jesus says He must tell-the-good-story-of (euangelizō) the kingdom of God (which Luke probably took from Matthew 4:23) but in Mark He simply says that He must preach or herald or give notice (kērussō), which is the word that Luke uses in verse 44.

The last word, “Judea,” is peculiar since it was in Galilee that Jesus was preaching. Matthew 4:25 mentions the people from Judea following Him. The word in Luke’s context (here) may mean something more like “Jewry” or the “country of the Jews.” It might also be a textual error. The word is attested in otherwise reliable manuscripts, but the United Bible Society relied on the “rougher reading principle” when they accepted it. The word “Galilee” is the word used in the manuscripts of the earlier Western text.

Now that Jesus has prepared His base He is ready to bring the Gospel to other nearby towns. He says “for this [purpose] I was sent.” The word for “sent” is apostellō, and therefore Jesus is speaking directly of His apostolate, or mission. It is to herald or give notice of His coming, which is the “good news” (Gospel) of His coming, the coming of the kingdom of God and, in Luke’s context, of the Jubilee of God. Mark does not use this word, Jesus saying instead that “for this [purpose] I came forth” (exerchomai). This shows the difference in emphasis between Luke and Mark: Luke has a particular interest in Jesus’ apostolate.

We will also find the journey motif throughout Luke’s two volume work. It is closely associated with the apostolate. In these verses Jesus leaves Capernaum not to return until 7:1. This first apostolic circuit becomes protypical of His circuits and demonstrates the coming of the Jubilee in Him, of His bringing liberation to people. But that is anticipating too much. Luke 5:42-44 is only the “heading” of what follows, that is, what issues from the establishment of His base in Capernaum.

The church of the polis is for the work of the apostolate, just as the apostolate is for the establishment of the churches—the testimony of Jesus—in every polis.

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