St. Paul’s – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
Deuteronomy 18.15-20; Psalm 111; 1 Corinthians 8.1-13; Mark 1.21-28
Jesus was not your ordinary teacher. In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus, and his four newly called disciples (Simon, Andrew, James, and John) have traveled to Capernaum on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. As it was the sabbath, Jesus entered the synagogue and began to teach, but this teaching was different. Those who heard him were astounded, “for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes” (Mark 1. 22; NRSV). The scribes typically cited the scriptures and appealed to tradition; their approach was deliberative. In contrast, Jesus spoke more from the heart; his teaching was declarative.
The Sermon on the Mount in Matthew gives us a great example of Jesus’ declarative teaching – “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 21-24; NRSV). Jesus teaching recast the Ten Commandments.
The focus of the commandments had always been on external action; but Jesus teaching focused on our internal state of mind which leads to action. In the commandment prohibiting murder, Jesus was encouraging us to look at our state of mind that would lead us to murder – anger. When something violates the normal terms of a relationship, we become fearful and tend to get angry. The other may have acted very selfishly, may have slighted us, insulted us, or in some way, impugned our honor. Honor was, and still is, at the very core of Middle Eastern social customs. Jesus’ teaching looked at the practical implications of our anger. If our heart is filled with anger, how can we approach the altar and worship God? We need to first reconcile things with our neighbor such that we can approach the altar with purity of heart.
When Jesus taught, he went well beneath the surface of things. He did not wrestle with ideas and cautiously come to some conclusion. He declared what was critical. I suspect he may have wrestled with the ideas during his period of temptation in the wilderness. Hence, he spoke with authority.
In Jesus’ time and culture, people commonly believed in demonic possession. Instead of demonic possession, we now speak of mental illness. Even so, Jesus’ healing ministry addressed both the body and the mind.
As Jesus was teaching, a man with an unclean spirit cried out, “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” (Mark 1.24: NRSV). Notice three things: First, at this point of his ministry, Jesus was not well-known, yet the demoniac recognized that Jesus was from Nazareth. Second, the demoniac uses the plural voice (“Have you come to destroy us?”) as well as the singular voice (“I know who you are.”). The gospels tell us of instances where Jesus cast out multiple spirits from the same person. Luke tells us seven demons left Mary Magdalene (Luke 8.2; NRSV). Third, the demoniac recognized Jesus as the “Holy One of God.” Calling someone the “Holy One of God” was considered blasphemous. These were signs of possession.
Jesus exorcised the spirit: “Be silent, and come out of him!” (Mark 1.25; NRSV) The account says the spirit convulsed the man, cried out with a loud voice, and came out. Those who witnessed this were amazed. Had we been there, I suspect we also would have been amazed. The witnesses asked, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits and they obey him” (Mark 1.27; NRSV). No, this was not your every-day occurrence at the synagogue. Consequently, Jesus’ fame began to spread throughout the region. In his gospel, Mark focuses on Jesus’ authority. In Mark 4, Jesus’ authority extends over the storm, over the winds and the waves. Mark reveals Jesus’ authority to extend over all – over the spiritual and the physical realms.
It is interesting to note how, or with which act, each evangelist chooses to depict the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. As we have seen, in Mark, it is Jesus’ teaching and the healing of a demoniac. Both teaching and healing demonstrate Jesus’ authority. Matthew briefly notes Jesus’ teaching and healing, then turns to a rather extensive treatment of the extraordinary nature of Jesus teaching as depicted in the Sermon on the Mount. In Luke, after Jesus’ time in the wilderness, Jesus enters the synagogue in Nazareth, his home town, and reads from the scroll of Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4.18-19; NRSV). Then Jesus handed the scroll to the attendant, sat down, and said to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4.21; NRSV). At first the people were amazed, then Jesus shared how God had fulfilled these promises to those who were not among “God’s chosen,” to the widow at Zeraphath in Sidon and to the leper Naaman the Syrian. Their amazement turned to rage. In John, Jesus’ public ministry begins at the wedding in Cana of Galilee with the miracle of turning water into good wine through which his glory was revealed.
In each, we are confronted with an epiphany – in Mark, authority; in Matthew, extraordinary teaching which recasts the Law; in Luke, the fulfillment of prophecy for both the Jews and the Gentiles; and in John, the revelation of God’s glory and abundance. How is God revealed to us? How do we experience the Epiphany—the dawning realization that God would come to us?
The man who was possessed experienced God’s power through love and healing. Forces were at war within him such that he knew no peace. Are we really all that different? Aren’t we beset by competing views and conflicting impulses? We may desire to love but find ourselves filled with anger and a desire for revenge. Are we willing to accept Jesus’ authority, to accept the healing and the forgiveness that he offers such that we might be made whole and experience peace?