Mark 1:21-28, Resistance Broken Down

[February 1, 2015] This morning’s Gospel text is about Jesus casting a demon out of a man who interrupted him while he was teaching at the local synagogue in Capernaum, a lakeside town of Galilee. Today I want to examine how this fits into the beginning of Mark’s gospel and interpret it from that perspective.

The Gospel presents Jesus to us, a picture of him, so that we can get to know him and have him impact us, or more exactly, from the Church’s point of view, to hear his call and claim on us and to find the comfort of his presence. Our main obstacle is our sense of familiarity, coming to the text as ones who already know. We bring all that with us and it prevents us from seeing the text afresh.

The Gospel according to Mark opens with John the Baptist proclaiming a baptism of repentance, calling people to submit to God’s judgment and commit themselves to live as penitents beneath the sight of God. They would accept the judgment of God’s holiness on their lives and at the same time love God, who calls to them personally in love. In this way they would find God’s mercy.

This presentation of John and his baptism only sets the stage for what then happens. Jesus suddenly appears from Nazareth and is himself baptized, accepting God’s judgment on himself and taking on himself this mantle of penitence. When he does this, the heavens open to him and the voice of God speaks to him from heaven and the Holy Spirit descends from heaven and anoints him with power for the task which is about to carry out. Notice that the heavens are open to him. I think they stay open. It is like heaven and earth are two rooms and the partition between them is removed. Jesus’ consciousness is in both places at once, heaven and earth, heaven participating in his life as much as earth is.

Yet he is still a penitent and the Spirit—“upon” him but still directly coming from heaven—drives him into the wilderness where—from a Jewish perspective (for this is the meaning of fasting)—he mourns for forty days, the length of Israel’s stay in the wilderness of the Sinai (they were not allowed to enter the Promised Land because of their unbelief and rebellious attitude). He mourns for himself as an Israelite, identifying in solidarity with the people, mourning for them all on account of their self-inflicted alienation from God. The Israelites are God’s chosen people, the people with whom God chose to be in covenant, yet they are an unfaithful partner. Their position, evident in the Torah, plain in the days before the kingdom, and fateful in the days of the kings, became the subject of prophecy in the days leading up to, during and following the two exiles (to Assyria and Babylon). The position of Israel, the rupture of its relationship with God, is clearly their own fault, and yet God remains faithful to “his” partner, his spouse, even when she is espousing many other lovers.

Is Israel more unfaithful than the gentiles? Certainly not, and this is an important point. As the apostle Paul makes clear in his epistle to the Romans, in chapters 3 and in 9 to 11, “Now we are well aware that whatever the Torah says is for those who are subject to the Torah, so that every mouth may be silenced, and the whole world brought under the judgment of God” (3:19). In other words, they are a microcosm of the world, a model that demonstrates the story of the whole human race. The Book of Genesis teaches that the rupture of humanity’s relationship with God took place in the beginning of human history, in a primeval past, and the alienation that Israel was made so painfully conscious of the gentiles had known from the beginning. The real difference between Israel and the nations is that Israel (in its prophetic consciousness) is aware of this reality of which gentiles are unaware. The gentile world, nevertheless, is willfully ignorant of its situation, blithely going on its way without any conscious idea of why things are so wrong. So, far from being worse than the gentiles, Israel is the painful tip of humanity, the only ones aware of humanity’s real situation before God. Jesus then, having an open heaven, is the epitome of this awareness, embodying the prophetic consciousness of the whole people in a perfection of clarity. Jesus is Israel in its truest manifestation.

And so he mourns in the wilderness, tested by Satan but never succumbing, sustained because of his faithfulness to God.

And he comes out of the wilderness, not done mourning but aware of God’s love and faithfulness in spite of humanity’s condition, aware of God’s love toward humanity, for he himself is the recipient of that love: he is God’s beloved Son. He sees this, however, not as a privilege but as the fact of God’s love to humanity with whom he is in absolute solidarity. In spite of the destructive effect of the divine holiness on humanity’s enmity towards God (i.e., God’s judgment), God is nevertheless in love with creation and with God’s own reflection in the creation, that is, the human persons making up humanity. The incarnation was a decision prior to the accomplishment of redemption. God chose to become incarnate, to take upon the divine person the solidarity with the human race that we see in Jesus. Jesus—the heavens open to him within him—is the consciousness of God among us, or in other words, the personal presence (God’s “I am”) of God’s love of us. As the Son he is the recipient of the Father’s love, and as the Son he shares that position with us, with whom he (the Triune God, in fact) chose to be in solidarity.

It is the incarnation that saves us.

So, coming out of the desert, Jesus announces this new reality; it is what the prophets had foretold: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is close at hand,” or “has drawn near.” His own person—inside him the heavens are open and the Father and the Spirit are with him in full communion—is the presence of the kingdom (or kingship or reign) of God. His presence in Israel is its nearness, its closeness at hand. Wherever he is, the kingdom of God is. The kingdom of God has come to Galilee.

What should our response be? “Repent, and believe the Gospel,” which is this message of the kingdom of God come to you in Jesus’ own person.

This is the introduction to the Gospel according to Mark, and the immediate introduction to Jesus’ Galilean ministry.

So here he is. He walks along the lake shore of the Sea of Galilee and calls four fishermen. He will make them fishers to bring Israel back home to their God. Jesus himself is the blessing promised to Israel if only they would be faithful to God. He embodies that faithfulness, and those who come to him share the blessing upon him, the blessing of the open heaven and the Father’s unrestricted love of the Son. They—of course having no idea of what they are doing—drop everything and come to him.

Do they literally drop everything, adopting the absolute poverty of, say, Francis of Assisi? Yes and no. Inwardly yes. The outward is absolutely affected by this. Peter still owns his boat (he still owns it even after the resurrection), but he holds onto it differently. Whether or not he still fishes, he is no longer a fisherman. He is a disciple of Jesus. This now defines him and the others.

But the story here is not about them but about Jesus. They follow Jesus, that is, they begin to follow him in the Way, even though they do not yet have any idea what the Way is, that is, where Jesus is going and the way he is going there. What they do, however, is follow. And this is what Mark wants of us his readers. Just follow Jesus, start to walk in his footsteps.

And right now those footsteps take them to Capernaum. Mark does not tell us this but John mentions that Simon and Andrew are from Bethsaida, probably the Greek-speaking town built by Philip the tetrarch just east of the Jordan River where it enters the lake from the north. Its name means “house of fishing.” Where they were when Jesus called them we do not know. East of Capernaum, “warm water from copious springs runs into a little bay of the sea in which fish congregate in great numbers. This has therefore always been a favorite haunt of fishermen” (Wikipedia under “Bethsaida”). Whether this was where Jesus found the fishermen we do not know, but the picture Mark gives is that the five of them literally walk along the shore (there was a road there) to the village of Capernaum.

“At once on the Sabbath he [Jesus] went into the synagogue and began to teach.” Mark writes as if these events were practically continuous, though this might have been for narrative purposes. Still, this raises the question: what does this tell us? Jesus does not begin to teach publicly until he has called the fishermen. Perhaps in these five individuals we already see by anticipation the church, Jesus in the midst of the four, the number four representing the cardinal directions from whence they were to fish out the elect of Israel and the gentiles who turn to the true God: Jesus still in our midst having the same role. The synagogue was the original setting of the church and it was never intended that they separate; the synagogue of the diaspora was always to be, and still is (as salt of the earth), a “light to the gentiles.”

Putting aside these allusions (and they are always at work in any text but more consciously so in ancient ones), Jesus takes his rightful place as a teacher of Israel, a rabbi, teaching by expounding the scriptures of the Torah and the Prophets.

“His teaching made a deep impression on them because, unlike the scribes, he taught them with authority.” The method of scribal teaching was to cite what other teachers had said. One look at the Talmud would show us what that means. Jesus apparently did not do this. He interpreted the scriptures directly, explaining what they meant on his own authority. The method was suspicious, especially to the scribes, but the way Jesus did it impressed people. Perhaps they found it refreshing. Perhaps, because they were considering the Scriptures themselves and not what all the commentators had to say about them, they found themselves responding to the words of the Scriptures in a way they were not used to. The Scriptures could speak directly to them.

Not everyone was happy, however. Jesus would have read from the scripture scroll standing up and then would sit down to teach. While he was teaching, a man interrupted him and said, “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” Jesus was from out of town (he had a house in Capernaum; perhaps he leased it; if he had obtained it at this point we do not know), from the little town of Nazareth. This may have made people wary (he was a stranger) and his unorthodox method of teaching might have gotten some of them particularly worried. It was hospitality to allow him, as a visitor, to teach, but now the alarm bells rang for some people. “What do you want with us?” Why are you here? What are your intentions? You already have disciples; do you want to establish yourself here as a rabbi? But your style is different, and frankly, it makes us rather nervous.

“Have you come to destroy us?” the man said to Jesus. This is the real fear. Whether or not there was anything to fear, Jesus evoked this reaction in some: we were perfectly fine before you came; we liked the way we were doing things. Do you intend to change all this? The people were conservative. Jesus acted differently and so he is making waves. So far we are only speaking about Jesus’ style: “he teaches with authority.” That itself would have raised suspicions, especially when a lot of people found it refreshing. It made those in charge (formally or informally) nervous. The old families that held the synagogue felt that things were under (their) control. This third wheel threatened to upset things.

What was even worse, however, was the message Jesus was conveying by his expositions. We have not brought that up yet, but Jesus was not just expounding the Scriptures. He did have an agenda. He was telling people that “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is close at hand. Repent and believe the Gospel.” His message was not as frank as I described it above—that he was referring to himself as this fulfillment. Yet it must have been clear in his exposition that he was saying that “the time” had come, the time that the Scriptures foretold. If anything would rankle the conservatives, it would be a message such as this: “the times they are a changin.” If you are someone whose position is invested in the status quo, this could make you very nervous. Worse yet, for those in Galilee, such an announcement would have made them particularly nervous, for in the past, such messages did not turn out well, at all. Revolutionaries against the powers-that-be, whether the dynasty of the Herod, the occupation of the Romans, or the high priest in Jerusalem appointed by the governor, had often provoked massacres and mass executions, and conservatives were certainly not interested in seeing that happen again. Jesus’ message may have evoked these very fears.

Yet what the man said next is surprising: “I know who you are: the Holy One of God.” What did he mean by this? He might have meant accusingly, I know what you are implying! You actually think that you are the one whom these Scriptures are referring to; that you are the Coming One. Jesus, however, understood it as an actual recognition: you are the one who you are talking about! You are subject of these Scriptures. The use of the adjective “holy” might suggest this (though it does not prove it). The person not only recognizes that Jesus is the one, but also recognizes in Jesus the holiness of God, that ineluctable quality that sets him apart from all others. (The word “holiness” implies being set apart from what is common for God alone. The holiness of God also speaks of God’s own absolute uniqueness, differentness, and otherness.)

This recognition, however, though accurate, was in the form of an accusation. Rather than rejoicing at the presence of God among us, something in this man was rejecting it. Jesus at once recognized that this something was demonic. The man, of course, was speaking, but something was going on inside him that represented the power in the world that is antithetical to God. He was under the grip of this power, this antithetical element.

That raises the question as to what we are to make of the demonic as we see it in the ancient world and in particular in the New Testament. We do not want to retreat into ancient superstitions or a magical mentality that proposes caricatures of what is obviously at work. We have more analytical and scientific ways of describing the same phenomena. Besides, the public hysteria about demons (conjured up by the imagination and portrayed in literature, film and folktales) misunderstands the Greek New Testament. The New Testament, for example, never speaks of demons possessing people (though this language appears in translations), but rather of people having demons.

However, an explanation of demons at this point takes us aside from the main thought. The ancient world understood demons to be supernatural creatures. Today we know that gestalts produce powers greater than the collectives that produce them. “Principalities and powers” exercise their power over individuals from the exterior: they are manifested in social forces: capitalism, racism, violence, etc. “Demons” exercise their power over individuals from the interior: they are manifested as psychological forces, as psychoses. Demons sometimes manifest themselves in alternative personalities and in histrionic physical symptoms. In our present story, the demon afflicting the man who spoke seems to speak also for a social power that had the synagogue in its grip. The demon was the manifestation of this.

Therefore when we understood the man’s words as representing the thoughts of those in power, and then see Jesus address the man as one having a demon, both are correct. The thoughts of those in power, the social force operating within the synagogue, was blocking Jesus’ message from getting through. And it was not innocent. Not only did they “get it,” that Jesus was actually insinuating himself in his interpretation of the Scriptures, but on some level they recognized that he was right, that what he was implying was true—and instead of embracing this, they were rejecting it. It was the same voice as the one that tempted him in the wilderness, “If you are the Son of God …”: “I know who you are: the Holy One of God!” Only now the voice was not tempting him but accusing him. “It” did not want the Holy One to be there. It was terribly afraid.

Oh, we too can be afraid of the presence of the Holy One. Is it not also the working of Satan? It is this resistance which makes the “world,” and when it assaults us too intensely, the manifestation is demonic. Before we launch into a hysterical “deliverance campaign” or demon-hunt, let me explain that this resistance is a resistance to reality. It is the very thing that psychoanalysis addresses, and has a hell of a time trying to cut through. Yet that is its work, to get people to stop identifying so much with the constructs in their souls and perceive reality as it is. Dynamic psychology also tries to help people stop lying to themselves. The difference between what they are doing and what I am saying is that for us, reality consists of both consciousness and matter, spirit and body, God and creation, not one or the other. They may or may not include “God” in their understanding of reality, but otherwise I do not expect them to wildly disagree with me. Matters of the soul are also there (and therefore are also real), but the contents of the soul often do not—if ever—tell the truth. This is why humility with a sense of humor are often healthy symptoms of sanity.

Lest people think that demons are particular to synagogues, I ask them to think again. Demons haunt churches even more so, for people must lie to themselves far more drastically in order to protect themselves from the presence of Jesus whose Gospel and Apostles are read week after week (and sometimes read poorly, for Protestants are notorious for ignoring the gospels and favoring the teaching of the epistles in abstraction). Demons hide out in the culture of churches the world over. And sometimes, when churches breathe out hatred and prejudice, it is apparent that the demons do not even bother to hide, though the congregants in those churches do not see them. This is the strength of demonic resistance. It is enough, however, that even the world can see demons in the church. (Though it is not always this way. Sometimes the tables are turned, and the churches are places liberated from the power of demons, surrounded by a community completely under the sway of principalities and powers hostile to God. Most of the time the situation is mixed.)

So with a loud cry the “unclean spirit” comes out of the man when Jesus rebukes it, though only after literally throwing the poor man into convulsions. Jesus spoke to the manifestation of this resistance; he spoke “with authority” and the man was delivered. The man was afraid of the Holy One, and the Holy One confronted this fear directly and wrenched it off of the man. The man now knew that Jesus was the one whom the Scriptures foretold as the Coming One, the Holy One of God, and embraced this.

“The people were so astonished that they started asking one another what it all meant, saying, ‘Here is a teaching that is new, and with authority behind it: he gives orders even to unclean spirits and they obey him.’” In the beginning they were impressed by the way he taught directly from the Scriptures without citing anyone else, showing them what the Scriptures themselves say. “Unlike the scribes, he taught them with authority.” Now, however, they are impressed with the teaching itself. Not only does he “teach with authority,” that is, without citing other authorities, but he backs it up with personal authority: he commands demons and they obey him.

I am reminded of the healing of the paralytic in 2:1-12. Jesus said to the paralytic, “Your sins are forgiven,” but when his authority to do this was questioned, he backed it up with a sign; he then said to the paralytic, whose sins he had pronounced forgiven, “I order you: get up, pick up your stretcher, and go off home.”

“His reputation at once spread everywhere, through all the surrounding Galilean countryside.”

The point is, and what was being conveyed to the surrounding Galilean countryside, is that here, in Jesus, the kingdom of God has come and is near to us. If we do not disassociate this from his baptism, we get a picture that Matthew gives us: “The people that lived in darkness have seen a great light; on those who lived in a country of shadow dark as death a light has dawned.” Galilee (as every community), whether they knew it or not, was under sin’s domain and all of its afflictions were an expression of the judgment of God manifested on humanity. Jesus came to be in solidarity with them all, as a penitent, to stand under God’s judgment, with humility and acceptance of its rightness and with love for God. What puts aside his fasting and mourning, however, is his vast consciousness of the holy God as his Father, and the Father’s unlimited love for him. He is the beloved of God, the Son of the Father, and has come to herald that love. God has come not only as our judge but as our Savior. Whoever believes, who comes to Jesus and disciples to him as the Promised One, can know the love of the Father—the love that the Father has for the Son. They can be on the receiving end of that love. Jesus has come to impart the reign of the Father’s love to alienated humanity, to break down the walls of enmity, to set the prisoners free.

He is the presence of the love of God in the midst of humanity—and not only in the midst of humanity, but in solidarity with it in its sinful condition, its lot on account of its sin. All who come to him, who enter his circle, know the blessing of the Father’s love, the blessing that comes upon the Son of the Father’s love, the Father’s beloved.

So Jesus calls disciples and in the very next move, as he preaches himself from the Scriptures of the synagogue, frees the synagogue from the cords that bind it. Frees the synagogue from the Torah and the Prophets? God forbid. He frees the synagogue for them. As Paul says, “When Moses is read, their hearts are covered with a veil, and this veil will not be taken away till they turn to the Lord” (2 Corinthians 3:15-16). With the veil taken away, the Law and the Prophets become radiant and clear: the hope that they proclaim is the Messiah—who has come, and is not here in the Holy Spirit, and will come in glory.

Thus Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, begins his service—his public manifestation (epiphany)—to the people of Israel.

Leave a Reply