Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
Mark 1:21-28: “What is this?
a new teaching with authority.”
After the call of the first four disciples (Mk 1:16-20) Jesus fixes his residence in Capernaum, which becomes “his city” (Mt 9:1). He is a guest of the Peter’s family who owns a house along the lake, a few steps from the synagogue. He begins to teach and to perform healings. The first that is told in the Gospel of Mark is not chosen at random. In Mark’s intention it constitutes the synthesis of the whole work of Jesus in favor of people.
It’s Saturday and people go to the synagogue to pray and to hear the reading and explanation of the word of God. There is a rabbi who organizes the meeting. Every adult Jew may attend or be invited to read and comment on the scriptures. To give a homily is quite simple: it is enough to recall the explanations given by the great rabbis to that particular biblical text. To venture one’s own interpretation is risky because one can be seen as presumptuous.
Jesus, as is customary, joins his people and is willing to do the readings. The first is taken from the book of the law, that is, the first five books of the Bible, the other is a song of the prophets. Who reads the second, if he likes, can also do the homily. Jesus, taking advantage of the climate of meditation and prayer that is created, introduces his message, with a highly appreciated speech: unlike the scribes, he speaks with authority (Mk 1:21-22). Probably the admiration of the people depends on the fact that he does not just repeat what has been said before him. He does a free and original comment of sacred text.
A dramatic episode happens after the homily. A man “possessed by an unclean spirit,” who until then has remained calm and quiet in a corner. He has not caused minimal disruption to the participants in the celebration. He has left them to pray, sing and listen. At some point, he begins to rail against Jesus. Who is this obsessed person?
In Jesus’ time, people did not have the scientific knowledge we possess today. They knew nothing of microbes, bacteria, hormonal imbalances. They attributed epilepsy, neuroses and all mental illnesses to mysterious and uncontrollable forces, to evil spirits, considered impure, because they were considered bearers of death.
All religions of antiquity knew the practice of exorcism to free a person from these unclean spirits. They resorted to rites and gestures that often bordered in magic. They pronounced detesting or cursing formulas and invoked the names of famous people, believed to be capable of communicating a positive force.
Jesus’ exorcisms differ so radically from those of the surrounding environment. However, in the way of speaking, he adapts to the current mentality and interacts with the disease by resorting to cultural categories of his time. He speaks, like everyone, of “evil spirits” and “demons”.
That said, let’s get back to the story of the man “possessed by unclean spirit.”
He stayed outside the synagogue as the liturgy began. He was already there, and seemed very quiet. At some point, however, something clicked in him and he exploded in curses.
To understand what happened, the split personality of this man should be noted. He was not master of himself. There were forces of death that dominated him to the point of destroying him. They spoke in his name and reduced him to a state of complete dehumanization.
Before the arrival of Jesus, there was peace and quiet in the synagogue and that was fine to all. They were resigned to the fact that the obsessed person remained at the mercy of the forces of evil. It was enough that he did not bother and remained quiet without disturbing them.
Where Jesus arrives this balance cannot continue. The presence of Christ is irreconcilable with the “devil”, with the forces of evil. The two are rivals; they cannot stand each other and they end up attacking each other.
In fact, the “devil” opens the hostilities (it is always those who feel weaker who attack). He realized that “the strong man” has arrived (Mt 12:29) able to bring down his kingdom. Frightened, he screamed two questions: “What do you want with us? Have you come to destroy us?”
The plural pronoun, used by the “unclean spirit” is not surprising because the forces that keep man away from God and life are many. The powers that feel threatened by the presence and word of Christ are many.
Jesus does not answer him with curses or magic gestures, as the exorcists of his time used to do. He gives two strict orders: “Be silent, and come out of this man!” The “unclean spirit” obeys him and all those present are amazed. They realize that a prophet announcing a “new doctrine” is in their midst. He has word that has God’s power in it, has “authority”, that is, accomplishes what he says.
Let us now go beyond the pure matter of record.
The situation of the “possessed” person represents the condition of those who have not yet met Christ and, therefore, is still at the mercy of hostile, uncontrollable forces that destroy him. Demonic forces are impulses of hatred, selfish withdrawal, committing injustice and violence, the greed of money, the will to dominate …
They are “demons” who make themselves masters and want to be left alone. They command, speak, demanding action and, when they do not cause major damage, people are likely to leave them in peace. They do not care about the inhuman condition of those who are dominated.
Jesus, instead, is a liberator. He enters into conflict with this negative reality because he knows he can count on his “strong” and effective word.
We can reasonably assume that it was not the first time that the possessed person took part in the liturgy of the synagogue. Therefore, he had often heard the reading of the Bible and the respective homily. Yet his condition had not changed, not because the word of God is ineffective, but because, with their discussions and misinterpretations, the rabbis had sapped it. They had made the word lose her healing power. They had made her incapable to drive out “demons”.
When Jesus appears, everything changes. A miraculous transformation of the man is fulfilled, because he speaks “with authority” and the reaction of the possessed is violent. It does not passively accept the order, resists and begins to cry because it wants to perpetuate its control over his victim.
This struggle is the rebellion of the forces of evil, demons that are in a person, in society, in the ideologies, even religious and civil institutions. They dominate and when they are harassed, they rebel.
In the possessed person who stayed good up to the clash with Christ, we can grasp the ability not only of the scribes, but also of many Christians, to appease the protagonist of evil. With their daily compromises with power, yielding to the spirit of the world and hypocrisy, with religious practices observed at the expense of the substance of the Gospel. As long as they persist, in the Christian and in the church, the evil one is silent and lets things go. When a prophetic voice rises or an authentic witness of faith and charity is given, then he gets moving with all the energies that it possesses.
Preaching that does not cast out demons, leaving things as they are, that does not change the person and the world, is not the word of Jesus.
Fr. Fernando Armellini
Before we go ahead with our Lectiones, we must underline a fact that, important as it is, may go unnoticed in our reading of Mark’s Gospel. There are only three Sundays left before we start the liturgical time of Lent. In Lent, only two of the Sundays will have a fragment from Mark. We will not resume reading Mark until June 7, and even in that period extending until Advent, on another five Sundays we will read from John’s Gospel account. As you can see, Mark’s Gospel is not only the shortest, but it also suffers from a meagre use in our liturgy. Maybe you will understand now why I advised you to read it entirely at the beginning of this cycle to get a general introduction to the whole year. These three Sundays left provide us with a clear, even if brief, vision of two of the dimensions in which Mark exposes Jesus’ authority at the very onset of his Gospel. Section 1:21-28, read today, together with the rest of chapter 1, (which we will read on the following two Sundays), describes Jesus’ authority over demons and illness. Immediately following this, the section comprising 2:1 through 3:6, which is read on Sundays 7 to 9, will show his authority over sin and the Law. Unfortunately, this year we will miss those passages. Having all these not so small details in mind, let us start our Lectio.
First, the setting is sacred, holy, and in a double dimension. As to the time, it is a Sabbath day, the “holy day” par excellence in the Jewish religious mentality. We should recall all the disputes between Jesus, the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees, concerning his violation of the “sabbatical rest” whenever he cured the sick on a Sabbath. As to the space, even if we are not in the Temple in Jerusalem, the synagogue had the character of a “sacred space,” for it was there that the Torah was read and exposed by the rabbis. It was there, too, that solemn prayers were recited every day. There is a third “holy” reality: Jesus himself, “the Holy One of God” (1:24). We do not know what Jesus taught that day, as Mark does not provide us with the slightest hint about that. The only thing he underlines is the difference “in style” between Jesus’ way of teaching and that of the teachers of the Law: he taught “as one having authority.” Nothing else. At the end of the whole passage, Mark will add another detail to explain why the people were “astonished” and “amazed.” Jesus’ teaching with authority “was new” (1:27).
Second, in that sacred space and time, the most unholy reality turns up in the form of “a man with an unclean spirit” (1:23). This is the opportunity for Jesus to show that there is still another difference between him and the official leaders of the community. The demon (it happens to be a “plural” spirit, by the way), recognizes who and what Jesus is, declares openly they have nothing in common, and asks if Jesus has the intention of destroying him/them. (Thus, Mark refutes the accusation they will bring against Jesus some time later: 3:20-29). Again, Jesus shows his authority in a double dimension: he silences the spirit and makes him leave the possessed man. The reality of that evil possession and its healing is attested to in the cry uttered by the spirit and the convulsion that seizes the man. But the most important thing, perhaps the “new” factor the crowd perceives, is the deep difference from a “traditional” prophet. Jesus does not speak or give orders “in the name of Yahweh” (see today’s reading from Deuteronomy), but “rebukes” the evil spirit directly, “in his own name,” so to speak. We are, in fact, in the presence of “the Holy One of God.”
The double question posed by the evil spirit is an open recognition that there is nothing in common between Jesus and him/them, and manifests their fear about their own destruction because the Kingdom of God has appeared. The kingdom of darkness and slavery has nothing to do with Jesus’ mission as the Messiah sent to set free those who live under the burden of evil. The way in which he begins his ministry is, at the same time, an announcement of the commission he will entrust to the Twelve and, in a broader sense, to all the disciples, to whom he “gave authority over unclean spirits” (6:7). We should also ask ourselves what we have in common with the dominion of “evil” when we find ourselves sharing the values and standards of this world instead of those of the Kingdom. We need to ask ourselves in what ways we are engaged in fighting the realm of evil in every dimension of life. To what extent do we announce (and live) the “newness” of the Gospel, or how deeply has the condition of a musty, old routine settled into our Christian lives? Is our presence in the small society where we live a source of freedom and deliverance for those enslaved by evil?
Pray for those oppressed by “evil spirits,” suffering from any kind of slavery (addictions, greed, selfishness, despair): that Jesus’ saving word may come to them and deliver them so that they may enjoy the freedom of the children of God.
Pray for Christians in general and for ministers in particular: that we may live the saving news of the Gospel, become its messengers and announce with the “authority” of coherence Jesus’ healing words.
Mark relates Jesus’ preaching in the synagogue of Nazareth, his hometown, and how he was rejected by his own people (6:1-6), but he does not mention the content of Jesus’ preaching. Read again the parallel text in Luke 4:16-30, and try to understand, accept and see how you can transmit Jesus’ message of hope to those subjected to any kind of slavery or oppression.
Reflections written by Rev. Fr. Mariano Perrón,
Roman Catholic priest, Archdiocese of Madrid, Spain