January 31, 2021
Sunday Between January 28 and February 3 Inclusive
May be replaced by Transfiguration Sunday if the assigned date is the last Sunday before Ash Wednesday.
Read the passage at the bottom of this post: Mark 1:21-28, The Message or Mark 1:21-28, The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).
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Having recruited some disciples, Jesus now begins teaching in public places.
Malina and Rohrbaugh point out that verses 21-27 are the first of a "Mark sandwich." That is, a set of verses that begin and end with similar material, with a different material in the middle. (See also: 3:20-35, 5:21-43, 6:7-31, and 11:12-25.) And just as a sandwich is eaten in a bite of the whole, and not first the top piece of bread, then the filling, then the bottom slice; so too the passage must be understood as a whole and not just the individual parts. In this case the parts are:
- Jesus teaches with authority; the crowd is amazed.
- An unclean spirit cries out and Jesus shows his authority over the spirit.
- The crowd is amazed and comments on his teaching with authority.
Those are the pieces. The sandwich that must be chewed over is the authority of Jesus.
A key is to start with the filling - the unclean spirit.
The phrase, "Just then," at the beginning of Verse 23, makes the connection between Jesus' teaching and the actions of the unclean spirit seem too accidental. The actions of the unclean spirit are actually provoked by the teaching of Jesus - they are an immediate response to his teaching - with authority.
Indeed, the unclean spirit gives voice to the reactions of the crowd:
- 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.
The crowd is astounded - stunned - by the teaching of Jesus because they know him only as a peasant wood worker from Nazareth. (And nothing good has ever come from that part of town.)
So what are we to make of this deviant behaviour? Deviance is always scary precisely because it is outside the norm; it is unpredictable; change will happen; and change is almost always bad. Have you come to destroy us?
In Mark, this unclean spirit is the first to "know who Jesus is," the Holy One of God, and publicly acknowledge him as such.
The fact that Jesus can order the spirit to be silent and come out of the man further confirms that Jesus has spiritual authority; is a person of higher spiritual rank than the unclean spirit; is a Holy One of God.
Jesus may have the authority to silence unclean spirits, but as we all learn to our own peril, no one can silence gossip, not even Jesus. And so his fame begins to spread through those present telling others what Jesus has done.
This is a beautiful illustration of how public honour, reputation and status worked in Jesus' day.
A person's status began - and usually remained fixed - with their birth: their parent's social status, their birth place, and time of birth all determined one's social standing.
Notice that the unclean spirit begins by using this public information to identify that it knows who Jesus is – knows Jesus’ origins: “I know who you are (socially)” – Jesus of Nazareth. But then it goes on to reveal hidden information – information known only in the spiritual realm – “I know who you are (spiritually)” – the Holy One of God. It is this spiritual status that is the source of Jesus' authority.
A family's status was jealously and fiercely defended because everything - including basic survival - depended on it.
And one family's status could only increase if someone else's decreased.
So seeing someone act "out of place," act with an authority they were not born to, was highly disturbing. It would have been immediately - and constantly - challenged. And would have needed to be immediately - and constantly - successfully defended.
BUT. And this is a huge "But" for those of us who live in a celebrity driven age: It was shameful and dishonourable to claim a change in status for oneself!
And so, in response to being honoured by being called "the Holy One of God," Jesus honourably tells the spirit to be silent; which thereby confirms his new status to the crowd, who then confirm it publicly by gossiping about what Jesus has done.
Their gossiping would also confirm to others that the man possessed by the unclean spirit has been healed and is no longer unclean - his former status in the community would now be restored.
The crowd who was gathered there would have heard the unclean spirit testifying to the truth of the claim with which Mark began his Gospel - that Jesus is the Son of God, the Holy One of God.
In Mark, the only human who also testifies that Jesus is a Son of God is a Roman soldier who helped execute Jesus on the cross. I wonder why Mark does this, and where in our present day we also hear / see testimony to the status of Jesus as the Holy One of God?
Note: Historical background information in this post is drawn primarily from Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh, Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, pages 149-150; and the writings of Amy-Jill Levine, et. al. See below.
Mark 1:21-28 (NRSV)
21 They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22 They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23 Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24 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." 25 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, "Be silent, and come out of him!" 26 And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27 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." 28 At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.
New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Mark 1:21-28 (The Message)
21 Then they entered Capernaum. When the Sabbath arrived, Jesus lost no time in getting to the meeting place. He spent the day there teaching. 22 They were surprised at his teaching—so forthright, so confident—not quibbling and quoting like the religion scholars.
23 Suddenly, while still in the meeting place, he was interrupted by a man who was deeply disturbed and yelling out, 24 "What business do you have here with us, Jesus? Nazarene! I know what you're up to! You're the Holy One of God, and you've come to destroy us!"
25 Jesus shut him up: "Quiet! Get out of him!" 26 The afflicting spirit threw the man into spasms, protesting loudly—and got out.
27 Everyone there was incredulous, buzzing with curiosity. "What's going on here? A new teaching that does what it says? He shuts up defiling, demonic spirits and sends them packing!" 28 News of this traveled fast and was soon all over Galilee.
Scripture quotations from THE MESSAGE. Copyright © by Eugene H. Peterson 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group.
* Link to Amazon.com Bibliography for Bruce J. Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on ... The Synoptic Gospels; The Gospel of John; The Book of Acts; The Letters of Paul; The Book of Revelation; and others.
+ Link to Amazon.com Bibliography for Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, Jewish Annotated New Testament, The Bible With and Without Jesus, Short Stories by Jesus, Entering the Passion of Jesus, and others.