A Provocation: Fourth Sunday After the Epiphany: January 28, 2018: Mark 1:21-28

Mark 1:21-28
1:21 They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught.

1:22 They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.

1:23 Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit,

1:24 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.”

1:25 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!”

1:26 And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him.

1:27 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.”

1:28 At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

A Question or Two:

  • Why is Jesus in the synagogue?
  • Why is the man with the unclean spirit there?
  • Are their reasons similar or different?
  • How do you know?

Some Longer Reflections:

The translation of the beginning of this scene is weak.  In English, it reads: “when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught.”  He did indeed go into the synagogue, and he did indeed teach.  But the Greek doesn’t simply say “When the sabbath came….”

The Greek is  καὶ εὐθὺς τοῖς σάββασιν, and two things matter about this phrase. 

The first is the word εὐθὺς, which Mark uses all the time (more than any other NT writer.  It is usually translated as “immediately,” though it does not always refer to time.  It is always an intensifier.  When Jesus does something εὐθὺς, he may do it right away, but he surely does it with vigor, focus, and powerful purpose.  So the storyteller is emphasizing that the matter of going into the synagogue is not random, not casual.  It is intensely intentional. 

And the last part of the phrase is even more important.   The reference to the sabbath (τοῖς σάββασιν) is in the plural, so the storyteller is NOT saying, “There was this one sabbath, and Jesus went into the synagogue….”  The storyteller emphasizes that Jesus went to the synagogue sabbath after sabbath after sabbath.  It is a distributive expression.  It means that if it was sabbath, Jesus was in the synagogue, every time.  

That may be why he is invited to teach.  The people in the synagogue knew him well.  You don’t get to teach in a synagogue just because you show up.  The storyteller presents the scribes as being in charge of the synagogue and as being the regular teachers there.  The storyteller also contrasts Jesus’ teaching with that of the scribes, who taught without basing their teaching on their own authority.  Too often interpreters pick up this lead and make fun of the scribes and of Judaism in general.  Too often the point is that Judaism “lacks authority,” while Christianity has all sorts of authority.

This is useless interpretation.

And it misses the fact that the scribes will have invited Jesus to teach.  It also misses the point that the storyteller makes at the end of the scene: they ALL were amazed.  All of them.  Including the scribes.

Studying Torah teaches you how to maintain stability in a world that is out of control.

Torah trains you to live an orderly life that testifies to the love God has for Creation.  Therefore, the authority of Torah does not (MUST not) depend on the personal authority of individual teachers.  Such free-lance authority would lead to chaos.

What Jesus does in the synagogue does not contradict the work of the Torah-teachers.  In the eyes of the storyteller, what Jesus does supports the intention of Torah from the start.  In the eyes of the storyteller, Jesus goes a step further: he demonstrates the ability to overrule those things that are out of control.

That is what the “unclean spirit” represents, a world in which some things are dangerous and make no sense.  The word translated as “spirit” is πνεύμα, and this is the word for the breath that God blew into Mudguy’s nose in Genesis 2, the breath that made Mudguy into a human being.  To say that the man in the synagogue has an “unclean spirit” is to say that something is deeply wrong.  He is dangerous.  He is out of control.  What he does makes no sense.  He is controlled by a different principle, a different force, a force that is also dangerous and out of control.

What force is that?  The rabbis in the ancient world sometimes implied that demonic possession was the result of being occupied by Rome.  That means that Rome is the force that cannot be controlled, the “spirit” that fills the world with people who have been made into dangerous enemies.

And the storyteller says that Jesus can end this occupation.

So this scene is not simply about demonic possession, whatever that is.

And the scene is certainly not about the weakness of the scribes.

This scene paints a picture of the messiah being able to free people from the force that controls the world and makes it dangerous. 

That means that the question for this week is: What is the force that controls our world and makes it dangerous?  What is the force that fractures communities and drives us apart?

There are several contenders: greed, resentment, anger, patriarchy.

One of my students, for her senior thesis, is doing an ethical analysis of the narrative world of the television series, Sons of Anarchy So, because I am her thesis advisor, I have spent the past many days watching the series.  There are seven seasons.  That is a lot of anarchy.

The people at the center of the story are members of a motorcycle club.  They sell illegal weapons.  They sell drugs.  And they love each other.

Because of that love, because of their ethic of loyalty to the members of their own community, they carry out vengeance against anyone who hurts a member of their family.  Early in the series, these acts of vengeance (which are extremely violent and bloody) bring the world back into balance.  At least they seem to.  The story is structured so that we relax when we see enemies punished, when violence is repaid with violence.

Violence is the force that keeps the world in control.

But even at the beginning, the violence is itself uncontrollable.  And in the end, the violence destroys the world and the family at the center of it.  

It was hard to watch Sons of Anarchy.  The blood was too much, and the violence was too pervasive.  But the story made me wonder whether violence might be the force that we cannot control.  Perhaps we are all possessed by the notion that payback balances the world.  It is easy to demonstrate that the president-for-now believes that.  He said as much in one of his “books.”  It is also easy to point out instances of deep dysfunction in the legislature, in cities, and in families.

Go deeper than that.

If messiah’s task is to free Creation from the forces that finally make us destroy ourselves, then interpreting this little scene near the beginning of Mark’s story asks us first to discover the ways we are possessed by a love of violence, the ways we are trapped in a system of endless payback.  Before we can interpret this scene, we have to discover the ways we ourselves are possessed.  We have to discover the ways we are TRAPPED.  

So this past week I listened to a report on the radio.  It dealt with the necessity of preparing for a war with North Korea.  This preparation necessarily involves training more and more brigades in tunnel warfare.  The necessity of this training is probably a legacy of the war in Vietnam, where fighting in tunnels was also necessary.  I remember the stories from those days, and the brutality of such fighting.  The realities of the world require us to train young people for that brutality.  It is necessary.  It is out of our control.

It will not do to interpret this scene from Mark’s story by pretending that we, as followers of the messiah, are free from such brutal necessities.  That means that, in some real ways, in the story we are the man possessed by an unclean spirit.  We have no choice.

And therefore we are the person to whom Jesus speaks: “Be silent, and come out.”

I wonder what he means?

2 thoughts on “A Provocation: Fourth Sunday After the Epiphany: January 28, 2018: Mark 1:21-28

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