By Ched Myers, Fourth Sunday in Epiphany (Mk 1:21-28)
This is an ongoing occasional series of Ched’s brief comments on the Markan gospel readings from the Revised Common Lectionary during year B.
The first major narrative section of Mark’s gospel begins (1:16) and ends (4:36) by the shores of the Sea of Galilee. In it Mark paints a portrait of Jesus’ public ministry in and around the Galilean city of Capernaum. This series of episodes exhibits the three essential characteristics of Jesus’ mission: the healing and exorcism of marginalized people, the proclamation of God’s sovereignty and the call to discipleship. These practices result in escalating confrontations with the local authorities, culminating with open conflict in 3:1ff.
In today’s gospel reading, Mark 1:21-28, implied social conflict characterizes Jesus’ first public action, a dramatic exorcism in a Capernaum synagogue. Here we encounter for the first time a “miracle story.” The modern debate over whether or not we can “believe” such stories is not only misplaced, it fails to address the function of this kind of narrative. The possibility of extraordinary manipulations of the physical (or spirit) world was never questioned in antiquity. Nevertheless, the “miracle” lay not there, but in what the act symbolized in terms of the wider scope of Jesus’ mission. Mark goes to great lengths to discourage us from seeing Jesus as a mere popular healer or magician (such were common in ancient society). Not only does Jesus constantly discourage people from fixating upon his acts of healing or exorcism (see 1:44; 3:12; 5:18f, 43; 7:36); he actually exhorts his disciples (and the reader) to look into the deeper meaning of his actions (8:17-21).
Notice the significance of the setting in 1:21ff. Jesus has moved from the wilderness margin (1:13) to the heart of the provincial Jewish social order — the holy time and space of a synagogue on the Sabbath. An example of how the form of an episode can help us understand its function is the way the actual exorcism is “framed” by Mark’s report of the crowd’s reaction:
And they were astonished at Jesus’ teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, unlike the scribes.” (1:22)
And they were all amazed, so that they questioned among themselves saying, “What is this? A new teaching! With authority he command even the unclean spirits and they obey him!” (1:27)
The essential conflict is thus defined as the contest over authority between Jesus and the scribal establishment, a theme which will become central to Mark’s entire story.
Sandwiched in between these statements of the crowd’s surprise is the encounter with an “unclean spirit.” It “protests” Jesus’ presence: “Why do you meddle with us?” (1:23f; an allusion to Jdg 11:12, I Kg 17:18). The demon’s defiance quickly however turns to fear: “Have you come to destroy us?”
Who is the “we” on whose behalf the demon speaks? The function of Mark’s framing device suggests that it represents the voice of the scribal class whose “space” Jesus is invading. The synagogue on the Sabbath is scribal turf, where they exercise the authority to teach Torah. This “spirit” personifies scribal power, which holds sway over the hearts and minds of the people. Only after breaking the influence of this spirit is Jesus free to begin his compassionate ministry to the masses (1:29ff). [Note: If you wish to explore the sociology of how the literate elite held sway over the majority in first century Roman Palestine, see Richard Horsley’s Text and Tradition in Performance and Writing (Cascade, 2013), especially chapter 4: “Contesting Authority: Popular vs. Scribal Tradition in Continuing Performance.”]
To interpret this exorcism solely as the “curing of an epileptic” is to miss its profound political impact. In contrast to Hellenistic literature, in which miracle-workers normally function to maintain the status quo, gospel healings challenge the ordering of power. Because Jesus seeks the root causes of why people are marginalized, there is no case of healing and exorcism in Mark that does not also raise a larger question of social oppression. We’ll explore this in next week’s reflection.