Commentary on Mark 1:21-28
Jesus’ teaching ministry starts in Capernaum, on the Sabbath day, in the synagogue. Jesus’ exorcism represents a demonstration of authority, and Mark distinguishes that authority from the scribes’. (By the way, Mark refers here to acquired honor, the honor that is gained actively through social interaction).
The main activity of scribes was teaching. It consisted of an exposition of the Law or the Prophets with relevant implications for the present. Jesus is showing more authority than them. As Mark describes it, he is not presenting a new teaching but is giving an interpretation that proved to be more relevant.
The passage can be structured loosely as follows:
a. Jesus comes into the synagogue (21)
b. Jesus teaches with authority and this is acknowledged with amazement by those present (22)
c. A man with an unclean spirit cries out (23-24)
d. Jesus heals the demoniac (25)
c’. The unclean spirit cries out and leaves the man (26)
b’. People acknowledge Jesus’ authority with amazement (27-28)
a’. Jesus leaves the synagogue (29)
The center of the structure, d, shows where the main emphasis resides; it is in the exorcism. The rest of the passage is constructed around it in a rhetorical parallelism that is not coincidental. It betrays an intentional structure, perhaps already present at the oral stage of the tradition and later put into writing in order to facilitate its memorization and transmission.
Two mentions of Jesus’ authority seem to frame the exorcism (verses 22, 27). That is the reason why Ched Myers affirms that the demons speak on behalf of the scribes.1 “Have you come to destroy us?” is spoken by the demons, but in Mark’s narrative, it represents the scribes’ opinion. The narrator seems to be leading the reader to ponder what a demon-possessed person is doing in the synagogue, especially in the light of a later accusation of the scribes’ that Jesus performs miracles by the power of the prince of demons (3:22). In Mark’s view, the scribes’ teaching is “demonic” because it does not liberate, but oppresses and enslaves people. A liberating act was needed and Jesus did it!
The Jewish Annotated New Testament suggests at this point that the expression Holy One of God—applied to Elisha in 2 Kings 4:9, and opposite to unclean spirit—means that Jesus, like Elisha, “would restore the correct boundary between the demonic realm of death and the world of life created by God.”2 It is not to be taken as a messianic title, as suggested by the capitalization of “Holy One” (which is not marked as such in the Greek text), but wrongly assumed by the translators. The expression refers to Jesus as belonging to God, being pure and separated from impurity, and thus contrasting sharply with the unclean spirits. The reason why they recognize this attribute, while no other human being in the narrative has done it yet, is because demons are spiritual beings.
Jesus’ command to the demons to be silent has to do with the fact that he does not want them to name him, since in that culture the one doing the naming had more authority than the one being named (see Adam naming the animals in Genesis 2:19-20). The order to come out of him has eschatological connotations; if the time has been fulfilled and the domain of God has come near, that means that God’s enemies are beginning to be defeated, and that Satan’s rule over the world is about to end.
Contextualizing the text
The demons that I am talking about are those who possess us as a community, as a nation, and as members of the human race. They are intent on destroying us, and we need to cast them out. How? First, we have to name them. Second, we have to pray as Jesus did in Mark 9:29 when he exorcized the boy with a spirit.
Naming the demons is a way to recognize that they exist. We start with the big one, Unbelief: losing one’s faith in God, in life as a sacred force, and in our fellow human beings. It is the feeling that nothing can be done to solve our problems. Then, springing from this one, come the others in fearful company: homophobia, racism, sexism, classism, religious and ideological intolerance, violence at home and at school, poverty, militarism, terrorism, war, greed, extreme individualism, globalization, out-of-control capitalism, media-infused fear that leads to paranoia, and governmental manipulation of information. To name just a few.
Praying is not a pious resignation to God’s will, or an exercise that puts our minds at ease, but rather, using Ched Myers’ words, that “intensely personal struggle within each disciple, and among us collectively, to resist the despair and distractions that cause us to practice unbelief, to abandon or avoid the way of Jesus.”3 In other words, it is the struggle to believe that change can really happen. A better world is possible.
Unless we name the demons, they will name us; they will control us and destroy us. But it takes courage to do so, for it will make us unpopular. Some will consider us apostates, negating the faith. I am not sure that we are willing to pay that price, as Jesus did.