Commentary on Mark 1:21-28
A central theme in this section is the nature and issue of Jesus’ authority (exousia), especially seen through the literary structure of our material.
In the first brief section (1:21-22), Jesus and his newly called disciples enter Capernaum. On the Sabbath Jesus enters the synagogue and begins teaching. The people who heard him teach were astonished, “for he taught them as one having authority (exousia), and not as the scribes.” The data in 1:21b and 1:22a are closely paralleled in Mark 6:2, where Jesus enters the synagogue in Nazareth and preaches. The people are again astonished at his teaching. Thus, 1:21b and 1:22a represent a traditional way of describing Jesus’ teaching and its effects on hearers (cf. also Luke 4:22). But whereas Mark 6:2 highlights Jesus’ wisdom and his deeds of power, the emphasis in 1:22 is on Jesus’ “authority.”
The word for authority, exousia, is related to the verb exesti, meaning “it is free” or “it is permitted.” In other words, exousia is the “sovereign freedom” of one who acts without hindrance. Jesus’ teaching in sovereign freedom is contrasted with the teaching of the scribes. The difference is that the scribes’ teaching authority depends on their knowledge of and adherence to tradition–especially the traditional interpretation of the Torah. However, Jesus teaches with an independent authority–or rather, on the authority of God (cf. 11:28-33). Whereas the scribes are bound to tradition, Jesus is relatively free–free in the way that only one who lives directly from and to God’s authority is free.
Mark does not give us the content of Jesus’ teaching, but we can find examples of the difference between Jesus’ teaching and the teaching of the scribes elsewhere in the gospel tradition. For example, in Mark 12:35-37, Jesus asks why the scribes say the Messiah is the Son of David when Scripture indicates that David called the Messiah “Lord.” Scripture itself suggests that the scribes’ traditional interpretation is inadequate. Jesus is suggesting that who or what the Messiah is may break the traditional Jewish mold. Again, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus does not hesitate to suggest that the traditional interpretation of the commandments is inadequate. What God demands of us goes far beyond what the scribes require (cf. Matthew 5:20).
In the next section (Mark 1:23-28), the focus on Jesus’ authority continues. We have here a typical exorcism story. Notice the description of the possessed man as having an unclean spirit, his asking Jesus, “what have you to do with us,” Jesus’ rebuke to the spirit and command to come out, and the account of the spirit’s convulsions, loud cries, and exit from the man. Each of these characteristics can be found in other exorcism accounts (cf. Mark 5:2, 7, 8, 13; 9:25-26).
Other elements in this story have parallels to the story of the stilling of the storm (Mark 4:35-41). Jesus’ rebuking (epetimēsen) the spirit and the command to “be silent” (phimōthēti) in 1:25 are parallel to Jesus’ rebuke (epetimēsen) of the wind and the command to “be still” (pephimōso) in 4:39. The response of the crowd in 1:27, “what is this (ti estin touto)…he commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey (hypakouousin) him,” is parallel to the response of the disciples in 4:41: “Who then is this (tis ara houtos estin), that even the wind and the sea obey (hypakouei) him?” These similarities suggest that, for the early Christians who formulated and transmitted these stories, the exorcism and the stilling of the storm illustrate a similar point: Jesus has power over both the natural world (winds and sea) and the supernatural world (demons).
This brings us back to the issue of Jesus’ authority. The most prominent element in 1:23-28 that does not have parallels to other exorcism or miracle stories is the declaration in 1:27: Jesus’ teaching is a “new teaching–with authority (exousia)!” Apparently, Jesus’ powerful exorcism is a confirmation of his teaching authority. What Jesus teaches is new (kaine)–unlike the scribes who teach the “same old stuff”–and his (divine) authority to teach is attested by his deeds of power.
In fact, the issue of Jesus’ (divine) authority is the major theme from Mark 1:21 to Mark 3:6! For example, in 2:10 Jesus says that “the Son of Man has authority (exousia) on earth to forgive sins,” openly declaring divine authority for himself. The whole section (2:1-3:6) portrays Jesus as the one who brings something so radically new that it threatens to break the old mold, as the similitudes of 2:21-22 make clear. (Mark places these similitudes at the center of the section, a literary device to highlight the major theme of the section). Jesus’ new practices bring him into deadly conflict with the worldly authorities, who represent the old (3:6). Furthermore, it is Jesus’ claim to act on divine authority that leads to his death (14:62-64).
Thus in 1:27, Mark has already set up a major theme of his gospel–the issue of Jesus’ divine authority, his bringing of something radically new, and the eventual result of which will be his death. Just as putting new wine into old wineskins causes the wineskins to break and the new wine to be lost (2:22), so Jesus’ bringing of the radical newness of the kingdom will lead to the breaking of the old (cf. Mark 15:38) and the spilling of his “wine” for the sake of many (14:24). The world resists God’s reign, and the world’s sinful resistance will lead to the death of God’s own Son. Yet despite; or rather through; that death, God will fulfill his purposes.
I write these words in the midst of a presidential election campaign knowing that preachers will preach on this text on February 1, soon after inauguration day. The nature and issue of Jesus’ (divine) authority provides an opportunity to reflect on the nature of political power and authority.
In a worldly sense, Jesus did not have any power at all. He was not a worldly king with political or military power. He was not of the priests, who had the power in Roman Judea. He was not even a scribe with the authority of Jewish tradition. The only authority he had was the supreme confidence that what he did and said was God’s will and God’s truth. His authority lay in the sheer power of his words and in the example of his deeds. His authority lay in his living as God’s servant. Jesus used his authority not to obtain power for himself but to serve humanity (Mark 10:41-45). This is the same kind of exousia, sovereign freedom, of which Paul speaks in today’s second lesson [1 Corinthians 8:9]–sovereign freedom exercised for the good of others.
Jesus’ acting in authority brought blessings to people–health and healing (1:23-28). His authority possessed an irresistible power that drew people not through manipulation, but simply by the person that he was and the truth of his own existence and the gifts that he gave. This was not a claim to authority that was necessarily open to empirical verification in his own time. To many people of his time, it was anything but obvious that Jesus acted on God’s authority. To his opponents, Jesus was a blasphemer. Jesus had to trust that God would vindicate his authority–and, as Christians, we believe that God did vindicate his authority by raising him from the dead. (The example of Martin Luther King, Jr., whose birthday is observed on January 21 this year, comes to mind as something of a modern parallel: a man whose authority lay in his words and deeds, whose call for change was disputed in his own time, but the moral rectitude of whose call for change has been vindicated in subsequent history.)
How different from the conception of power and authority in our politics! Our politicians try to manipulate us. They say one thing and do another. They use their authority for self-aggrandizement. They look for short-term gain, even if that means doing the wrong thing, rather than doing the right thing and trusting that in the long-term, history (not to mention God!) will vindicate them. Will the future be any different?
Jesus’ authority and kingdom ministry invite us to imagine a different world — and to live towards it.