Mark 1:21-28 (NRSV)
21 They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22 They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23 Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 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.” 25 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” 26 And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 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.” 28 At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.
In the beginning of his public ministry Jesus is presented as the one who has a lot of authority. How does the text do it? Earlier in the chapter Jesus commands men, who have never met him before, to drop everything they are doing, leave their families and the life as they know it and follow him. And no one objects his commands. This week we see how this trend continues. First, Jesus enters a place of worship and assumes a position of authority there – he teaches. The gospel fails to mention what exactly he taught, it appears not that important to the Gospel writer (I wonder why?) What is important is how he is perceived by the audience. He is now the one with authority that is bigger than the scribes’. Scribes carried a lot of authority in the Jewish communities, they were educated religious elite. Jesus is presented as “bigger and better” than they.
Although we are not told what Jesus taught about, we are presented with his extraordinary display of power in his conflict with a certain man in that synagogue. While most of the audience is astounded at Jesus’ teaching, the man feels threatened by it. The Gospel explains to us this reaction by noting that the man has unclean spirit in him. The man acts disruptively, he screams whether Jesus is there to destroy them. Who are them? I presume the man refers to many unclean spirits that are present in the community. The man recognizes the authority of Jesus, proclaiming that he is the Holy One of God – ἅγιος (holy, a saint). The unclean spirit recognizes that Jesus possesses the power strong enough to destroy them. Again, the Gospel builds up the authoritative image of Jesus.
Jesus acts accordingly. He rebukes the man, orders him to shut up, and orders the spirit to come out of the man. And so it does. We do not know what happened to the man afterwards. Unfortunately, the Gospel writer considered it unimportant to the narrative. The focus remains on Jesus only and his authority. As if this was not enough, we have another reaction from the crowd. They again proclaim that Jesus represents a new kind of teaching – with authority. Does that mean the teachers in the synagogue before Jesus had no authority? Or that they are no longer important once Jesus entered the scene?
So far we know nothing about the content of Jesus’ teaching, but we are assured plenty of times that he acts with authority that surpasses the other leaders in the community.
What bothers me about this text?
The Gospel writer views Jesus’ power as more important than the content of his teaching. That would not be problematic to me, if the history has not been repeating itself ever since. By no means I am saying that Jesus abused his power or that his message was not valuable. On the contrary! But you know well, that often our faith communities are being led by figures with a lot of authority (established by godly and not so much ways) but the message of the Gospel gets lost in the midst of these displays of power and strength. No need to name names, you should have a few examples of your own. Our attention gets drawn to everything big, bright and loud (oh so human!) and away from God’s Word. Just like Jesus used common ways of establishing his authority – by ordering people what to do, so we also continue to rely on the worldly paradigms of power as we navigate in God’s Kingdom. Not everyone with the biggest crowd, the nicest church building, the most-sold books, the largest crowd of online followers is the saint, the holy one of God. I wish that the Gospel text gave us the actual teaching of Jesus in that synagogue to balance and contribute towards the construction of Jesus’ authority, but it does not. And therefore, it is easy to fall in the Game of Thrones kind of trap – who has more power and how is it displayed. And unfortunately, we do fall into this trap over and over again.
Remember, Jesus taught not only as one with authority, but also as the one crucified. He was at the highest high and at the lowest low, and that is how the Gospel message was complete.
Let’s glance at the Hebrew Bible text.
Deuteronomy 18:15-20 (NRSV)
15 The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet. 16 This is what you requested of the Lord your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly when you said: “If I hear the voice of the Lord my God any more, or ever again see this great fire, I will die.” 17 Then the Lord replied to me: “They are right in what they have said. 18 I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command. 19 Anyone who does not heed the words that the prophet shall speak in my name, I myself will hold accountable. 20 But any prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, or who presumes to speak in my name a word that I have not commanded the prophet to speak—that prophet shall die.”
Yes, with power comes great responsibility, but you already know that. Here we nuance it – with the authority of being a prophet of God comes the accountability to God for the words that we speak (v. 20.) This verse should be written on each podium and pulpit facing the speaker, right next to their iPads, Bibles, and notes. Just a subtle reminder to all the preachers out there.
As for all of us, sitting in the pews on Sundays, we need discernment. Why are we listeing to someone with so much authority? Where does this authority come from and on what ground is it built? Is there more to it than a loud voice and a big presence on stage? We choose where to go worship and who to listen to, that is why God also keeps us accountable (v. 19.) Basically, no one is off the hook.
So I pray today for all who are seeking God’s word, whether to speak it or to hear it. Let us not be blinded by the displays of authority and power, but to seek God’s Word and follow it.
Cover image Jesus Rebukes the Unclean Spirit in a Possessed Man in the Synagogue, source