Commentary on Mark 1:21-28
Possessed by the Holy Spirit, fresh from successfully confronting Satan in the wilderness, preaching the reign of God, and now in the company of at least four followers, it’s time for Jesus’ public ministry to gather momentum.
It’s time for a fight scene.1
The scene in a Capernaum synagogue — a setting of prayer, teaching, worship, and community gathering — centers around questions of Jesus’ authority. Why does he do what he does? For whom does he speak and act? Who has authorized his ministry?
The answers to those questions emerge through fights — contests and controversies, really — beginning here and extending into Mark 3. They will recur later in Mark, too. Mark wants us to know, here at the outset of Jesus’ public ministry — that Jesus’ authority will be a contested authority. Jesus’ presence, words, and deeds threaten other forces that claim authority over people’s lives. These other authorities have something to lose.
The authorized exorcist
The man with the unclean spirit finds Jesus, initiating the exchange. His opening question, asked by the spirit that possesses him, is idiomatic and therefore difficult to translate. It conveys a sense of “Why are you picking this fight?” or “Couldn’t you have just left things as they were between us?” (see similar constructions in the LXX versions of Judges 11:12; 1 Kings 17:18; 2 Kings 3:13). Jesus, by his sheer presence in this synagogue, has upset the order. He has crossed an established boundary.
The contest does not last long, for this is not the fairest of fights in terms of the strength of the combatants. We can’t be sure whether the spirit’s next question (“Have you come to destroy us [unclean spirits]?”) is a fearful acknowledgement that his doom is sealed or an arrogant but miscalculated boast. In any case, the spirit is soon gone, expelled from the man with a few words from Jesus. No prayers. No formulas. No props. Just commands.
Mark gives no information about what happens to the spirit, which appears to become disembodied, not destroyed. As Loren Stuckenbruck notes, the New Testament is somewhat unique among ancient Jewish literature in its attention to demonic possession (as opposed to demonic attacks). When Jesus strips the spirits of the ability to inhabit their human hosts, perhaps the gospels’ authors claim that Jesus denies the unclean spirits’ capability to have a settled place or entrenched influence in the world.2 Losing opportunities to win over people’s bodies and minds, they lose the authority they were thought to have. This exorcism, then, does not eliminate evil and oppression; it denies those kinds of forces the authority or power to hold ultimate sway over people’s lives.3
The authorized teacher
The crowd’s amazement about the exorcism resonates with its reaction to Jesus’ teaching at the beginning of this passage. That Jesus was permitted to teach in a synagogue is not remarkable in itself; what captures attention is the manner of his teaching.
Mark says Jesus teaches “as one having authority” and takes a dig at the credentialed Jewish legal experts, the scribes, in the process. This doesn’t instigate a full-fledged fight, but it issues a challenge. Apparently Jesus’ teaching style is more declarative than deliberative. That is, he interprets the law and speaks on behalf of God without engaging in much dialogue about traditions, as the scribes were known to do. This seems in line with other places in Mark where Jesus speaks about newness (e.g., 2:21-22) and where he claims the authority to make assertions about the way things are (e.g., 2:28; 10:5).
The teaching and the exorcism are connected, then, since both result in amazement and acclamations about Jesus’ authority. Teaching and exorcism both have immediate effects, and both issue claims about who Jesus is. Inquiries into Jesus’ authority are inquiries into his identity. Mark is just getting warmed up, for these kinds of questions will resurface (e.g., 2:5-12; 3:15, 19b-22; 4:41; 6:2-3, 7; 8:11). Eventually, the question of Jesus’ authority — is he really sent by God? — will figure into his death, beginning with the question put to him in 11:28 and continuing through his sham trial before the high priest and then Pilate. Who is this teaching exorcist? He will finally be identified as king of the Jews.
Authority and the reign of God
Preachers who plan to spend much time in Mark’s Gospel during the current church year should consider using this Sunday to underscore the importance of the authority question. For Mark, the question does not lead to answers of theological precision. This gospel doesn’t devote energy toward establishing a clear Christology, an understanding of Jesus’ nature(s). Instead, Mark depicts Jesus as the one uniquely authorized, commissioned, or empowered to declare and institute the reign of God. Through Jesus, then, we glimpse characteristics of this reign. It is intrusive, breaking old boundaries that benefited another kind of rule. It is about liberating people from the powers that afflict them and keep all creation — including human bodies and human societies — from flourishing. It is about articulating God’s intentions for the world, defying or reconfiguring some traditions to do so, if need be.
Most preachers know how difficult exorcism and healing stories can be. What do these texts promise us today? What do these stories mean for those who don’t share the worldviews of the gospels, where it comes to understanding what makes human existence perilous, where illnesses come from, and what it means to acknowledge that some powerful forces — whether we consider these forces essentially spiritual, sociological, anthropological, habitual, political, biological, climatological, or not even capable of being so neatly divided into such categories — appear to remain stubbornly beyond our ability to control? At minimum, this passage provokes us to stop assuming that “the way things are” must always equal “the way things have to be.” The reign of God promises more, whether the “more” can be realized now or in a far-off future.
Churches that observe Epiphany devote the season to celebrating and considering the means by which Christ becomes visible and known to the world. Where are we still amazed by Jesus’ authority, by his teachings and deeds’ potential to upend our assumptions about what’s possible? Where can we see souls set free from destructive tendencies and powers that we thought were beyond anyone’s control? Preachers who bring these observations to the forefront of their sermons remind congregations that Epiphany is not just about longing for and acknowledging past manifestations of Jesus’ greatness and the gospel’s power; it’s also about discovering what deserves our amazement in our current and longed-for experiences.
1 On the action that precedes this passage, see my commentary for the First Sunday of Lent, on Mark 1:9-15.
2 Loren T. Stuckenbruck, “Satan and Demons,” in Jesus among Friends and Enemies: A Historical and Literary Introduction to Jesus in the Gospels (ed. Chris Keith and Larry W. Hurtado; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011), 173-97.
3 By contrast, the unclean spirits who enter the swine in Mark 5:1-20 appear to be destroyed in the water or confined to a place of chaos. Mark does not indicate whether this happens because of their stupidity, their reduced ability to control hosts, or Jesus’ power over pigs’ bodies.