In this morning’s gospel (Mark 1:21-28) Simon, Andrew, James and John had just joined Jesus as his followers.
Together, they went to Capernaum (on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee) and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught.
In Jesus’ day, the Sabbath service was much like our zoom Sunday service with scripture readings, teaching/preaching, prayers and blessings…without a meal or Eucharist…(and without the video technology).
When Jesus taught, they were astounded at his teaching… he taught them as one having authority -- and not as the scribes. Scribes is an umbrella term for teachers and lawyers, who taught from tradition and focused on the scriptures’ rules for living. It was not wrong, but it could feel burdensome and dreary.
Mark implies that Jesus used a different style than the scribes. In doing so, Jesus apparently grabbed the people’s attention.Moreover, Jesus’ authority was self-evident. I imagine that he cited scripture from memory, rather than reading it and while he spoke, he made eye contact with each person in the synagogue as if delivering the words directly to them. While Mark does not describe the content, one gets the impression that Jesus’ teaching was relevant, possibly drawn from familiar experience, perhaps including humour.
Aside from the manner of Jesus’ teaching, the astonishment may have also arisen because people in Capernaum had formed their expectations from his appearance. They might have seen him as a modest tradesperson and did not expect to hear wisdom. Once they heard him, however, they regarded him altogether differently. For them it was an “epiphany” moment, when Jesus was recognized as someone completely beyond what they had anticipated.
Just then a man with an unclean spirit cried out in their synagogue, “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.” Not everyone was as rapt by Jesus’ teaching. The person with an unclean spirit interrupted Jesus’ teaching, with behaviour that was not part of the usual decorum of the synagogue. He saw Jesus as a threat, and asked, have you come to destroy us? He was able to identify Jesus by name and where he had come from. More significantly, he addressed Jesus with the title, the Holy One of God. He knew Jesus’ character, clearly. It is also interesting that Mark quotes the man as saying what have you to do with us, in the plural as though there were many unclean spirits tormenting him.
But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. Whether we choose to think of the man with the unclean spirit as someone who was demon-possessed or—reading back with the insights of modern medicine-- as someone who had an illness such as epilepsy, or schizophrenia, Mark is clear that Jesus intervened and cured the man on the spot.Beyond stopping the man from disrupting the synagogue service, Jesus cared for the man and ended his torment. He made the man’s life whole.
The disruption, rather than breaking the spell, became an opportunity for Jesus to transform his teaching into a demonstration of his power.
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.”
In a sense, the two events…Jesus’ teaching and his cure of the possessed man… were one. Both were an invitation to wholeness, first by responding to God’s call, in scripture, and second by Jesus’ demonstration of God’s care for the man suffering from unclean spirits. Both events focused lives on divine love.'
At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee. And the word spread like fire in dry bush.
In his book, The Beauty of the Infinite, the Eastern Orthodox Theologian David Bentley Hart paraphrases the 3rdCentury theologian Origen in a comment that could apply to this morning’s gospel. “…the marvel of Christ is that, in a world where power, riches and violence seduce hearts and compel assent, he persuades and prevails…as a teacher of God and his love.” I sense that Jesus in this synagogue appearance was so attractive and compelling that the people in Capernaum wanted more.