Jesus shows us why our ideas of power are only half right
a Homily for Epiphany 4B | Text: Mark 1:21-28
Today’s story about Jesus leaving the seashore and heading to the synagogue to teach is obviously about authority. It says so. Twice. But it gets a little complicated. Yes, it is about authority and it is about the people recognizing his authority. But it is also about a new authority that the people recognize.
I’m not sure they quite understand it. And I’m sure that we misunderstand it. Because, for this new authority to actually be a new authority, it has to look different from the old authority. And we, even 2000 years later, continue to struggle with understanding what is actually new about it. We see it through the lens of the old authority. So let’s dig into why.
The hardest part of the story is what to make of the “unclean spirit”. I don’t mean make of it in the “do you believe in demons” way. Let’s save that for another time. I mean in how this unclean spirit responds to Jesus. And for me, this is the central question.
Jesus commands the spirit:
Be silent, and come out of him!
But the spirit is not silent, when it comes out,
convulsing him and crying with a loud voice
So if Jesus is so powerful, that he can command spirits and make them do what he says, why does the spirit howl? Why is it shrieking? It isn’t talking back or muffled. This is loud crying.
For this exorcism to be proof of Jesus’s authority, it means that we have to admit that we seem to have a different understanding of Jesus’s authority than they do. We, today, still think of authority in the old way. And dealing with this piece makes the rest make more sense.
A New Teaching
I struggled with this question: about Jesus’s power over the “unclean spirit” and how his control isn’t total. I struggled with what that means for Jesus and for his authority. Then I realized that this exorcism is the revealing of the teaching that Jesus was just doing.
One of the things we take for granted about the gospel stories is that they are stories that reveal something. John is particularly written this way, Matthew and Luke can seem straight-forward too. Mark, on the other-hand, is brilliantly precise writing. Mark often doesn’t say what we’re supposed to take away, often providing a visual moment to experience. It is very much in line with the way Jesus teaches in parables, not establishing rules, but telling stories.
So here, we read that Jesus teaches them something before the unclean spirit interrupts, but we don’t actually read what it is, only that it established Jesus’s uncommon, different authority. An authority at odds with the scribes.
The job of the Scribes was to physically write out scripture. Because they were virtually the only people in society who could read and write, and spent their days immersed in Scripture, they were the de facto authority on Scripture. It makes sense, doesn’t it? Imagine getting arrested and not consulting a lawyer–the ones whose job it is to actually know the law.
And remember, not even rabbis were universally literate. They are trained to memorize the Torah, not read it. So when Jesus is being compared with the scribes, he is being compared to the established authority on scripture.
But they say that Jesus is a different kind of authority. He offers them a new authority. An authority beyond the scripture, beyond the physical, beyond the literal. This means it is beyond the purity codes and beyond the predictable confines of authority as they know it. Jesus is definitely not a scribe.
The New Teaching
The teaching we don’t actually hear about, the teaching that establishes his authority in the synagogue is, for Mark, revealed to us in Jesus’s response to the unclean spirit. The spirit thinks Jesus will teach like the scribes, encouraging the people to stay away from it–away from a person possessed. It thinks it will be able to destroy this person in peace, because that is what the scribes teach.
Jesus is different. And he’s teaching something different. He’s teaching compassion for the possessed, not isolation. He’s teaching holiness is about relationship and maintaining relationship rather than ritual purity.
Jesus is teaching relationship. Then he goes further and shows to the people what true relationship looks like. It isn’t a command, barked at a servant. It is provocation and encouragement. It is command without control over the person/spirit. It is telling the other what needs to happen and knowing what will.
Do we dare to accept Jesus’s authority? Can we accept the idea that command doesn’t mean control; that not only Jesus’s authority, but GOD’s authority is based in relationship? Unlike our desire for GOD to be in charge, doing it all for us, making the world as a tyrant, or the dictator we want to blame when things go wrong.
Jesus presents a new authority, a glimpse into GOD’s dream for us, the Kingdom. Where we aren’t forced to do the right thing, but choose to do the good thing. Where we aren’t forced to be fair, but we strive instead for justice. Where our hope is in the one who brings us out of tyranny, a people liberated, redeemed, renewed, working together in love and devotion. That we might live the new authority.