Fourth Sunday After the Epiphany: Mark 1:21-28
We Do Not See
Mark wrote that Jesus and his new followers went to Capernaum. It makes sense—Capernaum is where Jesus lived. That’s part of the back story here, part of what this Gospel does not tell us outright, part of what we do not see.
Mark writes that Jesus walks into the synagogue and begins to teach. At first, it sounds like he just shows up for the first time, but it isn’t his first day there. These people, including the leaders of the synagogue, already know Jesus—Mark tells us at the beginning of the next chapter that Capernaum is where Jesus is at home.
This time, though, there is something new. Jesus has a following, a set of disciples, although they don’t sound very impressive. And this time, straightaway, there is a challenge—a man with an “unclean spirit” barges in and harangues Jesus, presumably speaking its strange words in the voice of this wretched man. When Jesus tells the spirit to leave the man, it does, the people watching are amazed.
That makes twice in the same passage that the audience is amazed or astounded: first, with the authority that Jesus displays in teaching, and second with his power in casting out a demonic spirit.
We could delve into trying to understand this demon in other ways that are more acceptable to modern thought, such as by recasting the man’s condition as an illness, but that would do violence to the story as it is told. Mark’s story is one of opposites and one of anticipation.
Opposites, then. Jesus is accepted by the religious leaders and worshipers in the synagogue. At the same time, he is challenged by a voice speaking for demonic powers, who recognize him and fear his presence. The irony is that in the end it is not demons who put Jesus to death—it is the religious people.
Anticipation. When Jesus casts out the unclean spirit, it cries out with a loud voice as it leaves the man. Mark describes the death of Jesus in the same way in verse 37 of chapter 15.
The power that challenged Jesus in the beginning was not the one that killed him, or maybe it was. Maybe it was hard to recognize the same intent in such apparently different, plainly decent, people. There are some real life lessons there. Expect challenges, for one, particularly just when things start going well, and sometimes from unforeseen places.
Another is that true power does not come from dogma—Jesus did not teach like the scribes. He didn’t tell them the rules. He showed them the truth, and truth is never found in rules but in people. Rules can be written down. Facts are found in laboratories. Truth, like power, is found in the heart.
We might think about the anticipation written into Mark’s Gospel, this early echo of the death of Jesus captured in the casting out of a demon. The demon is driven, wrenched out of a man with a loud cry of pain and rage. Jesus breathes out his life with a loud cry, but of what? And though Jesus journeyed toward his own crucifixion just as surely as that man walked into the synagogue, was there a difference in how they left this life? Does it matter that Jesus knowingly walked toward his end, while the man was driven by powers he did not understand?
There are echoes in our lives as well, moments when we are reminded of the brevity of this life, when we pause in anticipation of our own end. That is good, to be reminded, to remember. Otherwise we are like those ancient scribes, scratching out the details of our lives to distract us from living, to distract us from dying. There is power in being reminded of death. We do not cherish things we believe we cannot lose, do we? If we believe that we will see days without end, will we ever pause to watch a child play or marvel at a star we have not seen?
There’s a watch you can buy that counts down the seconds left in your life. Really. It is based on actuarial tables, general forecasts of life expectancy, something like that. You can find it here, if you’re interested: mytikker.com (I have no commercial interest—the link is only for the curious. And no, I don’t intend to buy one either.) The idea is that being reminded of the brevity of life might help one appreciate living.
Jesus and the demon-possessed man are telling us something about how to live. The man, screaming even as he is being freed, tells us that there are things we need to let go in order to live—and the process might be painful.
Control is not power. Rules are not truth. Life is not without pain, but it is worth the pain to live.