First Thoughts on Year B Gospel Passages from the Lectionary

Epiphany 4

William Loader

Epiphany 4: 31 January Mark 1:21-28

This passage takes the shape of a sandwich, a familiar pattern in Mark. It begins and ends with comments about Jesus’ authority as a teacher (1:21-22 and 1:27-28). In between is an exorcism (1:23-26). Already this simple structure tells us a lot. We are meant to find a connection between Jesus, the teacher and Jesus, the exorcist. More than that, this is the first episode in Jesus’ ministry which Mark recounts after the call of the disciples. Following the conventions of ancient writing we would expect the passage to hold important clues about what is to come. Authority is also the first main theme in the collection of controversy stories in 2:1 - 3:6, the authority to declare to people God's compassion in forgiving their sins (2:10). "New" also features at the heart of that collection in the sayings about new wine and new garments (2:21-22)

In 1:21-22 the first point to note is that Jesus enters the synagogue on the sabbath. He is at home in his own religious tradition among his own people. Mark tells us more: he teaches. So he is not only at home there; he takes on a responsibility within that tradition: he teaches. After the powerful introduction of 1:1-15, we might wonder what this Jesus is going to do. Here we have an answer: he teaches. By implication that will also be a role for the fishworkers who follow him, right through to today. It is a little odd that in so many parts of the church teaching must be defended or reawakened – sometimes desperately when we realise how lack of teaching has created such a gap between clergy and lay people.

The people are amazed not that he teaches, but at the authority with which he teaches. What did they mean? Did he rant and rave? Did he shout? Was he ‘so sincere’, a quaint blessing bestowed on earnestness by people baffled by intensity? Was he clever with rhetoric, an adept story teller? He may have done all of those things or none of them. The context forces us to guess what Jesus must have taught. It does not get much better for chapters to come, because even in Mark 4, where we get parables, they are all about the effects of his teaching, rather than the teaching itself.

Our best guess is to look back at 1:14-15. He taught about the kingdom. Our next guess is to note the sandwich structure: it must be about forcefulness or, at least, it must have been disempowering of oppressiveness, i.e.. liberating. ‘And not as the scribes’ in 1:22 is an important clue. How did they teach? From Mark’s gospel we would have to conclude that much of their teaching was concerned with fine points of interpretation of the Law. And from the rest of the gospel we would have to conclude that Jesus’ teaching must have focused on central themes like God’s compassion.

In Mark and elsewhere we find Jesus often teaching with a directness which drew on common life experience rather than derivatively by interpreting scripture. This had the effect of shifting the power base of knowledge from the experts (in scripture, scribes) to the common people, who all knew about common life experience. It was a different way of doing theology, which democratised the process. This may have been in Mark’s mind. From the perspective of the New Testament as a whole it makes a lot of sense.

Mark interrupts our thought by the account of the exorcism but will lead us back to the theme – wiser – in 1:27-28. I don’t think Mark means us to see the synagogue as a gathering place for demons and the demonic, as though this is a not very subtle besmirching of Judaism. Rather Jesus is, if you like, claiming the space and belonging to it. The confrontation is described simply but powerfully. ‘What the hell are you doing here?’ could translate the first sentence. It will be echoed in the words of the Gerasene demoniac in 5:7. It is desperately confrontative, because the demon recognised that Jesus could destroy its power. ‘The holy one of God’ says what it means. Peter will acclaim Jesus in these terms in John 6:69. It may have no particular technical background. It certainly recalls all that was said of Jesus at his baptism and must mean something similar to ‘the Son of God’ which we find on the lips of other demons (3:11; 5:7; cf. also 1:34). Through it Jesus becomes a way of defining holiness – worth remembering!

Claiming knowledge was a power game then among demons – as it is now! Naming is supposed to allow one to control what or who is named – just watch the way names are used in interviews! The demoniac gets his christology right! He will not be the first to think that getting the theology right is a fine way to silence Jesus.

Jesus silences the demon and demands he depart. The demon does so, but not without yelling at the top of his voice. The exorcism is achieved. The demoniac has been liberated. For those of us brought up with strict scientific methods such accounts of exorcism call for more informed explanations. They feel so strange that we may want to avoid them altogether. It is then very hard to appreciate Mark who has made them so central. There are ways of slipping the awkwardness we feel. The trouble is we may end up slipping past the message of Mark. However we understand exorcisms, those reported from the ancient world or from present day cultures unlike our own, something real is happening. People are being set free. Physical contortions and hugely dramatic moments will occur in many different therapies, whether the frame of thought is demonology or modern psychotherapy.

The important thing is liberation, setting people free. This is an essential component of the "good news" of God's reign. It is a demonstration of what is meant when John predicts that Jesus will baptise with the Spirit. For Mark exorcising unclean spirits is a primary function of the Holy Spirit and the key element one should recognise in what Jesus is doing (see 3:28-29 and remarkably according to Matt 12:32 even more important than getting one's christology right!).

In 1:27-28 Mark returns us to the theme of authority and teaching. Now we know that he is writing about the kind of teaching which liberates, which discerns the demonic powers which oppress people (whatever the intellectual framework used to identify them) and seeks to bring about new beginnings. We must not slide too quickly into a kind of liberation theology which then uses such exorcisms only as a symbol and sums up Jesus’ or Mark’s gospel as a programme to combat political oppression. That is certainly an implication, although the social analysis it presupposes is a product of modern thought and not to be read back into Mark or Jesus. Their ancient social analysis used the language of apocalyptic as its sphere of discourse and rarely saw beyond it.

We are sometimes closer to Mark’s account of the exorcism when we are doing pastoral care, although wisdom teaches us that we are mostly not competent to handle such situations and should seek appropriate resources. The kingdom of God in Mark is good news because it brings liberation at a number of levels. The central thing is enabling people to be how God made them to be. That must involve addressing powers and gods that enslave. The more we understand how they work, the richer our understanding of redemption. We cannot be satisfied with ancient spheres of discourse, but nor should we imagine our own have constructed reality without remainder or that somehow by intellectually docetic magic Jesus thought just like us. What we can say is that Mark leaves us in no doubt about what constituted good news in his world, what the kingdom means, what happens when the Spirit ‘baptises’ people. The last thing Mark wants is for us or our congregations to be left behind when we encounter his opening scene. One of the skills of the pastor is to create the space, the ‘synagogue’, where our madness can come face to face with the holiness of Jesus. That also means coming to terms with our own madness.

Epistle: Epiphany 4: 31 January  1 Corinthians 8:1-13

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