Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
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What is Authority? Mark 1: 21-28
They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.
Way back in December, as we started the season of Advent, I let you all know that we would be spending a lot of time in the gospel of Mark during this liturgical year. Well, first, we had to get through Advent. In Advent, we read from a bunch of different scriptures. And, the same goes for Christmas. We jumped around a lot there, too. It's not until now, in the midst of early Ordinary time, just before the season of Lent, that we have begun in earnest our journey with Mark. So, despite the fact that I told you that we'd be spending a lot of time with Mark, we had to wait a little while to really get here. Perhaps it would be helpful to have a little bit of an over-view of what has been happening. At this point, we've heard two other stories from Mark. The first one was Jesus' baptism, where he demonstrated a kind of authority that is not afraid of vulnerability when he asked John to baptize him. He was also filled with God's spirit and driven out into the wilderness where he struggled with Satan.
We had a short detour into the Gospel of John, and then, last week, back in the Gospel of Mark, we learned about how Jesus, after John was arrested and he returned from the wilderness, called his first disciples. He told them and God had come near, that the Holy Spirit ran through his veins, and invited them to along on his journey to make sure that all people knew the presence of a loving God. And, they followed him. Today, we learn where they went. From the coast of the sea of Galilee, the traveled to the city of Capernaum. Capernaum will become the base for his ministry in Galilee and the surrounding area. When the Sabbath came, Jesus and his friends went to the synagogue with the other observant Jews. Jesus began to teach.
Now, according to scholars, it wouldn't have been that strange for Jesus to be preaching and teaching on that day. This synagogue likely didn't have a set rabbi or teacher the way our modern synagogues do. It would have been common for people with a reputation for wisdom to be allowed to speak at the weekly meetings alongside the educated elite. We might assume that Jesus already had a reputation for wisdom, and was invited to speak. Perhaps it was the same reputation for wisdom that inspired James and John to follow him. Either way, he taught. And, what he taught surprised people.
Mark doesn't give us outline of Jesus' sermon that day. I kind of wish he would have. I wish I knew exactly what he said that surprised people so much. Given that, just a few verses prior, Jesus is described as proclaiming that God had come near and the people needed to return to God, I imagine that this sermon in the synagogue had something to do with that. But, who knows exactly. Whatever he said, he said with an authority that people did not expect. And, he said with an authority that was different than that of the scribes.
The scribes were the educated class, scholars of Jewish law who represented the priestly rulers. Given how tied up the Jewish rulers were with the colonial power of Rome during this time, it is not hard for me to imagine that the scribes were also in a place where they had to watch their words in order to avoid offending the Roman officials, that is the ones who were truly in charge of what happened in Roman Palestine. Some scholars also suggest that they had a particular way of teaching. In a way that is very similar to how modern day trial lawyers argue cases based on the outcomes of previous cases, the scribes may have constructed their arguments using insights and interpretation of other well-known scholars. For example, if one wanted to discuss whether or not a particular activity violated the prohibition of working on the Sabbath, one would study the arguments crafted by other well-known and respected rabbis, using their precedent to make one's case.
Being a scribe was a position of great privilege. It was expected that a scribe have an expansive knowledge of other scholars' work. In order to amass such knowledge, one had to be able to read, a skill that was not common, and one had to have time to study. Given that most people were illiterate peasants who spent most of their time in sustenance farming and fishing, few could afford to spend time in study. Scribes were typically well-respected and valued members of the community. Given the amount of education they had, and their positions as leaders, they were people who's word carried much weight. They were people of authority. But, what I'm not exactly sure about is how this authority is different than Jesus'.
Remember, the author of Mark said that Jesus taught them as one having authority, but this was not the authority of the scribes. What does that mean? If we don't have the words from Jesus' teaching, how can we compare them? I think the next section of the reading can help us figure a little bit of this out. As Jesus was reading, a man who was possessed by an unclean spirit cried out to him. He seemed to recognize just who Jesus was. "What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?" the poor man cried out. "Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God!" Now, before you get to distracted think about whether or not you believe in "unclean spirits" who can possess someone and make them do things they don't want to do, I want to invite you to not actually worry about that very much. I don't actually think it matters if you believe in spirit possession in order to interpret this passage. I do think it matters for us to remember that the writer of this Gospel most certainly believed in unclean spirits, as did a considerable number of people of this time period. If you decide that since you don’t believe in unclean spirits that that makes this story unhelpful or meaningless, then you're missing out. This story is too interesting to dismiss so quickly.
Spirit possession in the Gospels seems to represent a lot of things. Sometimes, it is an explanation for illness. People who exhibit symptoms of what we would likely call epilepsy might have been thought to be possessed by an unclean spirit. Some modern interpreters wonder if people who exhibited symptoms of mental illness might have also been thought to be possessed by an unclean spirit. Sometimes, the spirits represented forces that were fighting with God for control of the world, like a great unclean spiritual army at war with God. It is important for us to remember these varied meanings. However, regardless of how we try to explain away the spirits to make the stories more palatable to modern, mainline sensibilities, it is important for us to try to read these stories with an appreciation of the context in they were written. For these people, unclean spirits were real and were a force to be reckoned with.
If one was thought to be afflicted with an unclean spirit, one would have great difficulty being a part of the social fabric of the community in which Jesus was raised. If that spirit made you sick, you would likely have trouble working for even what meager wages many people subsisted on. If that spirit made you seem wild and dangerous, you may be banished into parts of the community where people thought you would not pose a danger to you neighbors. In just a few chapters, we will read about the man in Gerasene who is so tormented by demons that the only place he can find to live is in the cemetery, among the tombs. If your spirits made you ritually unclean, you might even only be permitted to have limited physical contact with the ones you loved and would likely not be allowed into religious ceremonies for fear that your uncleanliness would disrupt the ritual and infect others. Having an unclean spirit pushed you to the margins of the community. It made you socially, medically, and spiritually an outsider. Few people had the authority to restore you back into the fullness of community. Once isolated, it was difficult to return to sense of wholeness.
Notice what Jesus does when he is approached by this possessed man. Speaking to the spirit that has possessed him, Jesus rebukes it, and says "Be silent, and come out of him!" Now, the spirit does not leave easily. It is rare that we are able to easily rid ourselves of the things that enslave us. However, even though there was the struggle, the spirit left. The man was restored. And the people who witnessed it were amazed and understood this act as a confirmation that Jesus' new teaching came with authority, that is it was not simply a re-examination of tradition, but it was a new word from God... a word that extended and built upon what they already new. People recognized Jesus' gift not only when he talked about it, but when he made use of it to heal someone who would have been incredibly marginalized in his community.
Jesus taught that God had come near and told people that it was time to return to the ways of compassion and love that God had given them long ago in establishing the law. And, Jesus showed people a new way to exercise authority. First, in his baptism, he made himself vulnerable to John, thereby opening himself up to receive the Holy Spirit. Next, when he began his public ministry, rather than doing it alone, he invited along James and John, disciples and co-workers who would tell people of the nearness of God. And, finally, in this story, by reaching out to the tormented man, and freeing him of the force that controlled him. In just a few verses, Jesus developed a new teaching, a new way of being in authority that did not reside in military might or philosophical acumen, but instead was best understood through vulnerability, mutuality, and compassion for the marginalized.
Friends, what kinds of unclean spirits are wreaking havoc in our community today? Who are the people in our community who are forced to live in the margins, making their lives among the tombstones, and barely getting by? If a possessed person were to walk into our door right now, would we be able to respond to their cries with this same kind of compassionate action that Jesus demonstrated? This is our challenge today. How can we as followers of Christ make use of this kind of authority? Because the unclean spirits are still here, we just call them something different. It is our calling to be the hands of Christ, casting them out and welcoming the broken back into a place of wholeness.
Works Pastor Chrissy consulting when writing this sermon
Pulpit Fiction, episode 100: After Ephiphany 4B (February 1, 2015): http://www.pulpitfiction.us/show-notes/100-after-epiphany-4b-feb-1-2015
Matt Skinner's Commentary on Mark 1: 21-28:
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.