Today’s passage Is, like the rest of Mark’s gospel, fast paced. A popular exercise for the students at the URC’s Northern College is to have a reading of Mark’s Gospel for a church in one go. It takes about two hours and it’s interesting to see how fast the story gallops along. This little passage today follows on from the Call of the Disciples that we heard about last week and Jesus, with his first four disciples, goes and preaches in Capernaum.
At the time of Jesus Capernaum was a small fishing village – of about 1,500 people, on the north of Lake Galilee. It is though that this was the home village of Peter and it’s where Jesus, in Mark’s Gospel performs his first miracle – the exorcism of a man troubled by an unclean spirit.
There are, I think, three things going on in this wee passage – the style of Jesus’ teaching, the exorcism, and the interesting issue of who it was who knew who he really is.
He Taught with Authority
Twice in this short passage the hearers and watchers of Jesus are amazed at his authoritative teaching. His style is contrasted with the scribes – who would confine themselves to passing on the tradition and gently offering interpretations of that tradition – rather like many Christian ministers these days. Jesus, by contrast, upset the status quo by preaching with authority – and then demonstrating that authority in the exorcism.
I’m always troubled by authority. Part of my nature is to be something of a rebel, partly I am suspicious of those who exercise authority unwisely and partly I can see the damage done by authoritarian leaders who come to believe their own hype. We live in a time where Mr Trump believes he has great authority and is, therefore, authoritative. He has the full weight of his office behind him, and, in theory, controls both Houses of Congress but he doesn’t seem to realise that so many of us don’t take him seriously. The spectacle of him and his staff saying, despite the photographic evidence, that more people than ever before came to his inauguration set the scene for a year ever more bizarre episodes which don’t seem to have made a dent in his sense of his own authority.
Mrs May is a totally different character who called a General Election hoping for a landslide allowing her to pursue the Brexit negotiations with room to make more compromises but who was confounded by a resurgent Labour party and, since then, by a divided Conservative party which means she seems to stumble from one crisis to the next despite trying to be authoritative. She does a better job of this than Mr Trump but neither leader has, in my mind, the authority that goes with the office. Yet in politics to be authoritative may not win you popularity – and Mrs May won the largest share of the vote for decades. Mr Putin is very authoritarian and, as a result, is treated with suspicion. In the Church we can be wary of ministers, preachers and congregations that are authoritarian often, rightly, believing them to be dangerous.
Given all this we may have a certain sympathy with the Scribes who would present the tradition, offer different interpretations of it and let people make up their own minds.
Against this cosy status quo comes Jesus. We don’t know what he preached about – in Luke’s Gospel his first sermon at Nazareth Synagogue outraged the congregation as he claimed the Spirit of the Lord was upon him – personally not in some abstract way and he felt he was to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour, release to the captives, sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed. Heady, dangerous stuff that would endanger him and, no doubt the Elders felt, the Synagogue if he wasn’t denounced. Mark doesn’t record the content of the sermon but we can be sure it amazed the congregation – and probably upset the Scribes.
So Jesus amazes people with his style – an authoritative way of preaching that amazes those who hear him and which makes his sermons memorable, a style which, we know from Luke’s Gospel, disturbs the status quo.
Jesus’ authoritative style is confirmed with the exorcism. A man troubled by what the writer calls an unclean spirit disturbs the proceedings and, with authority, Jesus banishes the unclean spirit.
It’s hard to know what is meant by this unclean spirit. In an age which didn’t know much about medicine anything that couldn’t be explained could be assumed to be the result of a demon rather than of an illness. People with epilepsy, for example, were often thought to have been possessed by a demon. Sometimes, those who were ill in other ways were assumed to be that way due to demons. Many fundamentalist churches now – here and around the world – have a literal view of demons and most ministers can report times when they’ve been asked to give prayer and assurance because people have been troubled by ideas and experiences they attribute to demons.
Certainly in Jesus’ age it was easy to blame illness – physical or mental – to demon possession. Any preacher or itinerant healer in the ancient world needed to be skilled at healing – the healing – and in this context exorcism is a form of healing – was a way of proving the person had authority. Jesus’ healing not only bought relief to the sufferers but demonstrated his authority from on high.
Who Knows What’s Going on
An interesting theme in Mark’s Gospel is who it is that knows who Jesus really is. His disciples often get it wrong – Peter denied him, Judas betrayed him – the religious leaders are uneasy with Jesus and, eventually, plot his death. The demons, however, often announce who he is and Jesus silences them. At the end the Centurion realises but by then Jesus is silent. Demons and Romans get it but the religious insiders don’t.
Jesus’ ministry disturbed the way things were. To the religious authorities he was a popular rabble rouser that might bring the wrath of the occupying Romans down on him. His barbed teaching unsettled those who did well out of the social order. His championing of women and the poor was threatening to the rich. Perhaps that Demon who cried out “Have you come to destroy us?” was onto something. Not destruction of the demon per se but destruction of demonic social systems, attitudes and compromises that oppressed people. Maybe the demon voiced the attitudes and thoughts of those in leadership in the Synagogue who liked careful, thoughtful, safe sermons.
So what do an authoritative sermon, an exorcism and a realisation by outsiders have to do with us now?
First, in an age which seems to ridicule politicians who aren’t authoritative (even if they are authoritarian) we should reflect on what it is that makes someone – political or religious leader have authority. With Jesus it was the message he preached and what we’d now call authenticity of his life that reflected his message. People respond to leaders who are authentic – leaders who seem to be out of sync with their message are soon seen as false. If people around us don’t see Christ’s love and service shining out of our lives they won’t believe us when we say that He is our Lord.
Second, people are still troubled by demons – demons of loneliness in an interconnected but alienating world; demons of prejudice in an ever more diverse society; demons of poverty in a world where the rich get ever richer. Like Jesus we are called to silence and cast out these demons so that the status quo is overturned.
Third, and possibly most disturbingly, in Mark’s Gospel it is the outsiders who get it. The religious authorities see Jesus as a threat – as do the Demons but they realise who He is. Those outside the Church often understand the Gospel and the demands Jesus makes more clearly than those of us in the Church. We can become blinded by history, tradition and familiarity and fail to see the radical nature of Jesus’ message to love God and neighbour, to change the world and model a new world.
Of course, to point to a new world, a new economic model, a new type of society is hard. We’ll be told we’re foolish, that change isn’t possible – but they said that in the age where Kings had absolute power and now most of the world is democratic. Change can come – and we’re here not just to proclaim it but to model it by living lives which reflect Jesus’ authority, by confronting the demons in our world and by making links with the outsider to model the coming Kingdom. Amen.