It’s a quiet morning. The people gather for worship. The rhythm of song and prayers just rolls along.
The brash newcomer arrives and seats himself in the posture of teacher. What he says is quite believable, well received. Nonetheless, folks look at each other in amazement. How could someone unknown and so untested be so wise?
No sooner has the crowd’s murmuring spread that something else extraordinary happens.
A person in the crowd begins to shout. The people look nervously at one another. The odd behavior and the erratic words, the glint in the eye, surely this person has an unclean spirit!
Now at this point, you and I hit the “pause” button and consider the scene. We have a few options for reading this story. Surrounding us is the knowledge base we bring as twenty-first century readers. How do we read this story? Is this a story best read with a grain of salt, knowing that the world of the first-century Christian writer reflected a belief in demons that makes western modern Christians wince a bit? Or, do we page Dr. Freud to come and help us understand the story through the lens of modern understandings of psychology and mental health? (Ah yes, Mark, just recline on the couch here, and tell me about your oral tradition….)
At first, the story could be classified as an exorcism, a casting out of the demonic. Some might even declare it part of the miracle stories of Jesus, a great show of his power. As for Mark’s gospel, neither exorcism nor miracle would fit the best descriptor. Mark is more interested in telling a story about Jesus and authority.
Certainly, the spectacle of this scene misdirects our attention: a person starts acting out, screaming and shouting. Then after a brief exchange between the person and Jesus, the person falls over, released from what Mark terms “an unclean spirit” within him. Make no mistake: While a person with an unclean spirit causes a ruckus, the real rumble about to take place revolves around religious authority.
The gospels revolve around those who would praise Jesus and those who would gladly discredit him. Look back at the scene in Mark’s gospel: the crowd is astonished that Jesus has presumed to enter into a place of worship and teach. Jesus was just gaining public attention. Indeed, after this incident with the unclean spirit, Jesus is said to grow in his standing among the local people.
Indeed, this type of scene repeats throughout Mark’s gospel: people hear Jesus, some sort of challenge to his honor and authority is levied, and Jesus’ response not only is honorable, he becomes that much more respected as a teacher and healer. In the words of the late German feminist theologian Dorthee Soelle:
“With a host of friends (women as well) going through Galilee’s villages and towns
he healed the sick and told stories of the eternal God suffering in the world”. (cf. Jesus of Nazareth, W/JKP)
Even as the crowds murmur their guarded praise and Jesus’ newly called first followers watch on with curiosity, the unclean spirit realizes the fullness of Jesus’ authority. The spirit names Jesus as “the Holy One of God”. While the spirit is trying its best to get out of what is certain doom for itself, the spirit is also quick to acknowledge true power.
In the first chapter of Mark alone, we get narrative after narrative of those who affirm the authority of Jesus. The unclean spirit is actually right in step with John the Baptist, who proclaims Jesus as the one long awaited in the hope of Israel. The unclean spirit is in tune with Mark’s ebullient opening words, proclaiming this gospel as the good news of “Jesus Christ (or “the Messiah”), the Son of God”. The unholy even agrees with God, whose voice is heard rumbling approval at the baptism of Jesus as the beloved one. Toss in a few disciples who drop everything, sight unseen, and you get where Mark is leading his reader even before we get to the second chapter. Here is Jesus, one with authority.
Again, we hit “pause” to ponder that word “authority”. Authority is a hard sell today. Studies show public trust is eroding, and not just in the areas of public life that you might expect. Such surveys show decreasing trust in religion and especially religious leaders (i.e. “clergy”). A story about trust, let alone trust in God, gives today’s average American pause, wondering if trust is just a passing fancy on the way to the eventual questions and doubt too easily earned by institutions and authority figures once thought above reproach.
Mark’s gospel builds its story of Jesus, who emerges on the scene an unknown, yet steadily hailed as “the real deal”. This story of authority is in the midst of the world’s doubts and ambiguity around human authority. It unfolds in the midst of a religious gathering in Capernaum. The crowds reflect the sentiment of the day: reserved at first with this outsider who presumes not only entering their worship, he also presumes to teach. They are a people caught up in the midst of life, just trying to get by in a land under the economic thumb of distant Empire. It’s hard to believe much good can be found, let alone the type of authority that shall lead us forward.
Mark contrasts these positives with the lack of response or outright scorn of others in the narrative. Time and again, Mark will introduce characters who arrive at moments of teaching and healings to challenge, scoff at, or outright dismiss Jesus and his ministry. Ironically (and Mark loves irony in his narrative), the scribes, or religious authorities, whom Jesus is hailed as more authoritative than, are said later in Mark’s gospel to be accusing Jesus of being possessed himself. The gospel keeps asking: will you see and believe in Jesus who his followers call Messiah and Son of God?
Curiously, with all this talk of authority, Jesus himself does not want the fuss. He tells the unclean spirit to hush. (The Greek is fairly blunt, the tone more “Shut up!” than the NRSV’s more Protestant restraint of “Be silent”.) The spirit has named him rightly, yet Jesus dismisses him straight away.
Again, Mark likes some irony with his gospel. Crowds will try to hail Jesus king; the disciples will claim boldly and brashly the authority of Jesus and their fidelity to him. The unclean spirit screams at first, then realizing who is front of him, the spirit then shrieks in fear. As for Jesus, he looks at his well-wishers and around his inner circle and tells them, “Shhhh!”
In Mark’s gospel, Jesus is shown to have due claim to authority, yet he declines taking the spotlight or capitalizing on the fame. Surely his reputation grows, yet he is not like those who gain respect or trust then try to spin it into finer things: status, wealth, or power. Jesus lives a different path, not claiming authority as the scribes wanted. Jesus steered clear of the populist impulse within the crowds and even his band of followers, not claiming a crown. Jesus does not need that type of authority. He keeps to his mission, proclaiming the Kingdom/Reign of God at hand.
He stays on message. He stays on mission. He stays true to everything Mark’s gospel is proclaiming. Jesus is the Messiah/Christ, the Son of God.
And the unclean spirit does not fight him. He pleads meekly and then departs.
For a people knowing authority is hard to find and hard to believe, the story offers us the opportunity to open our hearts a bit more and let God in the midst of our lives. When those fears or passions threaten to possess and consume us, we call upon the good name of Jesus, who healed the many and taught those who would receive him gladly. When the world or the powers that be keep us distracted, the stories of Jesus, the one whose power and authority is earned by his humility rather than by his grasping after it, offer their ancient power to kindle our faith and trust.
Whom do you trust in this world? To whom be your glory and honor? Do you hear the story and agree, this is truly the Holy One, who speaks as one with authority?