With Authority: SALT’s Lectionary Commentary for Epiphany Week 4
1) In quick succession, Mark tells the stories of Jesus’ baptism, the calling of the first disciples, and now a third “epiphany story” in which Jesus’ identity shows forth (as you know, “epiphany” means “showing forth”): a direct and dramatic confrontation with an “unclean spirit.”
2) Mark’s world is full of shadows and menace, riddled with demons who distort creation and overwhelm hearts and minds. Human beings are cast as porous creatures open to spiritual influences: Jesus himself is driven deep into the desert by the Holy Spirit, and in this story, the man in the synagogue is possessed by an unholy one. On first glance, this way of understanding the world can seem archaic and foreign - but it’s precisely this historical and cultural distance that can allow such stories to shed new light on our lives today (see below).
3) The Book of Deuteronomy presents itself as Moses’ parting words to the Israelites before they enter the Promised Land. His overall message is that (a) God will continue to expect fidelity and righteousness and (b) God will provide them with support along the way, including “a prophet” who will be their guide and mediator. This shepherd will be “like me” - that is, like Moses, the archetype of all subsequent prophets. And the new prophet will be a gift responding to the Israelites' request for a go-between (at Sinai they became afraid of direct interaction with God, “this great fire” (see Deut 5:25)). In later Jewish tradition, some interpreters began to hear verse 18 as an eschatological proclamation, pointing ahead to a great prophet whose arrival will signal a new age. This idea was in circulation in first century Palestine, and was likely in the background of the Gospel imagination: see, for example, John’s story of Jesus feeding the five thousand, after which the people say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world” (John 6:14).
1) In Mark's crackling account, not only do Simon, Andrew, James and John recognize Jesus’ authority “immediately” - an “unclean spirit” does, too, confronting Jesus as a threat and naming him as “the Holy One of God.” This confrontation serves as the iconic launch of Jesus’ public ministry, and so Mark’s message is clear: Jesus comes into the world as a healing liberator in direct, authoritative opposition to the death-dealing forces of evil and ruin in the world.
2) What strikes the crowd about Jesus’ teaching is that he does it “with authority,” speaking in his own voice rather than leaning on other authorities in the familiar style of the scribes. In Mark and elsewhere, Jesus often cites both scripture and tradition - but not here at the outset, a signal of his distinctive prophetic standing and power. In Mark's imagination, when Jesus speaks, we hear God’s voice; and when Jesus acts, we see God's activity in the world. Jesus doesn’t simply talk about healing and liberation. He heals and liberates. In this sense, his teaching is indistinguishable from his mission, and from who he is. In fact, the word Mark uses here for “authority” is exousia, a close cousin of the word that eventually ends up in the Nicene Creed to indicate “substance” or “being.” Jesus speaks and acts from his essence. What he says, what he does, and who he is are all one and the same: he is “the Holy One of God,” the one who has come to heal and liberate the world.
1) Since many people today don’t typically interpret the world in terms of demons and exorcisms, it can be tempting to apologize for this passage as obsolete and unconvincing. But this is a false start. After all, when we read the Bible we engage ancient texts from halfway around the world - it's only to be expected that they’ll feel cross-cultural and unfamiliar at first. Think of this as a kind of travel through time and space. The opportunity is to stay open to how another way of thinking and living can shed new light on our own.
2) Any number of death-dealing forces today are often experienced as "possession" or being "caught up" in dynamics that far exceed our intentions or control. Think of how addiction overwhelms individuals and families; how racism shape-shifts over time from explicit to implicit forms; how anger consumes; how envy devours; or how sexist attitudes create a culture of degradation to which unwitting comments contribute every day. We may or may not call addiction or racism or the objectification of women “demons,” but they are most certainly demonic. They move through the world as though possessed of a kind of cunning. They resist our best attempts to overcome them. And as we make those attempts, the experience can be less like figuring out an equation and more like wrestling with a beast.
3) And so for Mark, Jesus comes into the world to wrestle with these beasts. The word “salvation” comes from the Latin salvus, which means “health” - and in Mark, Jesus’ idea of salvation isn’t to give us a ticket to a heavenly land in the old by-and-by, but rather to bring new health into our lives and communities today. For the sake of all people and the whole of creation, the death-dealing forces around us must be confronted and, ultimately, overcome. To follow Jesus is to join him in just this kind of confrontation, to speak and act with boldness and clarity, to heal and liberate with our words and at the same time with our deeds. As Mark tells it, when Jesus says to James and John, “Follow me,” he means follow him into the fray, into the shadows, into the menace itself. He means follow him into the work of building up from the ruins, of freeing the captives, of salvation (health!) in that old by-and-by, sure, but also in the immediate here and now!