TEXTS: Deuteronomy 18:15-20; Mark 1:21-28
Last week, in Mark’s Gospel, we heard about the call of Andrew and Peter, James and John, to be fishers of people. Biblical scholar Ched Myers suggests that there is no more misunderstood expression than the invitation of Jesus to these workers to become “fishers of men” as the King James Bible translated it. Despite the grand old tradition of missionary interpretation, says Myers, the metaphor does not refer to “saving souls”, as if Jesus were conferring upon those men—or upon those of us who also choose to follow him—the status of instant soul saver.
Rather, the image comes from Jeremiah, where it is used as a symbol of God’s judgment of Israel. The prophet Amos likewise uses a fishing metaphor as a euphemism for judgment upon the rich and powerful. What Jesus was doing, in those verses we heard last week, was inviting common folk to join him in his prophetic vocation to overturn the existing religious doldrums and the social order of power and privilege.
Jeremiah 16, verses 16-18 says: “I am now sending for many fishermen, says the Lord, and they shall catch them; and afterward I will send for many hunters, and they shall hunt them from every mountain and every hill, and out of the clefts of the rocks. For my eyes are on all their ways; they are not hidden from my presence, nor is their iniquity hidden from my sight. And I will doubly repay their iniquity and their sin, because they have polluted my land with the carcasses of their detestable idols, and have filled my inheritance with their abominations.” The Amos passage reads: “The Lord God has sworn by his holiness: the time is surely coming upon you, when they shall take you away with hooks, even the last of you with fishhooks.”
Think about it: a fish caught on a hook is not a happy creature. It wiggles and squirms to get off the hook, because it knows that its former life is over.
In case we missed the allusion to the prophets’ understanding of the call to be fishers of people, Mark makes all plain in the very first public event in Jesus’ new ministry. From the moment that Jesus strides into his neighborhood synagogue, Mark makes it clear that the kingdom of God, as Jesus understands it, is incompatible with the local public authorities, with the religious majority, and the social order they represent. An unclean spirit—a term used synonymously throughout Mark with “evil spirit” or “demon”—immediately demands that Jesus explain himself.
The insinuation that most readers miss in this story is that the man with the unclean spirit is one of those scribes—who may have taught with erudition, with rote memory of Scripture, but without any compassion, much less passion, or persuasiveness, or power, or perhaps in a way that only judged and did not offer the redeeming possibility of grace and mercy. The man with the unclean spirit was one of the religious insiders, who, without doubt, believed himself, to be among the chosen.
Mark has moved Jesus from the symbolic margins by the Sea of Galilee to the heart of the provincial Jewish social order—the synagogue on a Sabbath. The exorcism is bracketed by the references to teaching of Jesus as “authoritative” and “amazing”, or “astonishing.”
You can be sure that this was not a pleasant encounter between Jesus and the scribes. Mark describes Jesus as penetrating the symbolic space that was acknowledged to be the domain of the scribes—the doctors of the law, the spin-masters, of their time. No sooner has he stepped onto their turf than he encounters stiff opposition. The challenge from the unclean spirit says: “Why do you meddle with us?” It is communicating a defiance toward one it perceives to be a hostile intruder. And indeed, Jesus is hostile to religion, religious attitudes, religious practices, religious institutions that get in the way of the relationship between persons and God.
From defiance, the man with the turns to fear, “Have you come to destroy us?” As I suggested last week, to have passed the threshold into holy space can be dangerous to the status quo of our lives. Here, in this passage, Ched Myers suggests that the demon can only be understood to be pleading on behalf of the scribal aristocracy whose social role and power Jesus is threatening. [Myers, Ched. Binding the Strong Man. New York: Orbis, 1988, pp. 141-142, paraphrased or directly quoted.]
In the first century, it was thought that you could gain control over someone by “naming them”, and so the demon attempts to control Jesus by naming him. “Holy one of God” is a semitic title that acknowledges Jesus’ prophetic status to be the caliber of Elisha. It earns the unclean spirit a stern rebuke, after which the tables are turned, and rather than controlling Jesus, it becomes subject to Jesus’ command.
The synagogue crowd nervously considers this new development. The words that Mark uses, that the crowd was “amazed”, “astonished” are “…strong….they connote not just incredulity but a kind of panic associated with the disruption of the assumed order of things.” [Ibid., p. 142]
“This is the first miracle story in Mark’s Gospel.” [Ibid] How shall we make sense of it? What does it mean for us today?
First, let me say that an exorcism represents an act of confrontation between forces of good and the forces of evil—the forces that oppress people, that harm, hurt, and cripple them come face to face with that which heals, frees, and empowers people for the goodness for which they were created. Exorcism is one of the central characteristics of the messianic mission of Jesus, and it is a vocation that he passes on to his followers. It is our calling also as those who claim to follow Christ.
Second, let us not get hung up on modern science and psychiatry. The miracle stories, and exorcisms in Mark’s Gospel, while never letting us think that Jesus is not ministering to individuals in need and taking care of them, serve more importantly to help us discover the “authority” of Jesus, and who he is. The demon tries to “name” him, and thereby repeats what Mark has already told us about Jesus in the opening verses of this Gospel.
The miracles and exorcisms in Mark’s Gospel bear witness to a kingdom and power that is greater than the natural order. For Mark, the person of Jesus is more important than his teachings.
Third, these seven verses that Mark has chosen to inaugurate the public ministry of Jesus serve to remind us of the ways in which religious words and religious institutions may cripple, disable, and enslave God’s beloved people. It is in the very place of worship and study of God’s word that Jesus first publicly confronts and defeats the power of evil. Jesus has come striding into the place that keeps people living with the status quo, by an ethic of premature resignation—the “oh well, what can I do about it mentality”, of withdrawal into an anti-worldly piety that will not look at nor address the needs of neighbor. His exorcism is a word of warning to any who would use God’s word and worship as a means to wound and not to heal.
This week on Facebook, there was a story about a church group in New York, I think, that attended a gay-pride parade with signs of apology for past exclusion. The son of a New Union participant stated: “I’d go to a church like that.” To which I responded: “We might not have gone to a gay pride parade, but you have attended a church like that, a welcoming place where we try not to use religion to beat people up, or cause them more suffering. I invited him to come back, and he said he would.
In Mark’s story, the observers in that small town synagogue felt the authority pouring off of Jesus. To what, in our own time, do we give authority? Do we really give it to those who have political power? There may be a deep hunger for the charismatic politician who has power to inspire us, but we certainly aren’t finding it abounding in the current political scene. So it isn’t power, alone, that signifies authority. Wealth fails enormously as a source of authority, however we might envy it, most of us also know that wealth can be a poison, become a metaphorical prison for those whose aim in life is its acquistion. Position, such as a CEO, or president of an institution, may also utilize power to control, but such exercise of control usually results in stultifying conformity, and not creativity or imagination, and not health, in the long run for the institution so governed.
Rather, authority demonstrates itself as a magnetism that inspires, that evokes the best that is in us. Authority confronts all those forces that block advancement, progress, health. It possesses the same root word as the word “AUTHOR”—meaning one who creates, who sets a new story in motion. And the other word with this root, AUTHORIZE means approval, doesn’t it? It includes others in the ability to act, rather than inhibits, or blocks action.
Like the ancients, we too live in a world haunted by the demons of fear, worry, anxiety, insecurity, inordinate self-concern, the abuse of power, the abuse of one another, and all the consequences and ills these metaphorical demons bring in their wake. We live in a world where religion is used too often for control, and to keep people in a position of premature resignation, and passivity.
In this story, Jesus brings the charisma of respect and trust to free people from the domination of whatever may hold them captive. Sometimes we are even held captive by our old religious assumptions, by a faith that hasn’t changed since childhood, by our own desires to think we are followers of Jesus who can avoid some of the cost involved.
Into our lives, as we read Mark’s Gospel, Jesus comes once more. He asks us to repent (which means to turn around, 180 degrees), and to believe that God’s kingdom is within our grasp, and to follow him. The challenge began in a synagogue in Capernaum, a fairly well-to-do provincial resort town on the Sea of Galilee. And the challenge begins here, too, as we meet this Jesus in our fairly well-to-do place of worship. Do you sense his power? Do you feel his authority? Do you feel him confronting our temptation to be his friends without being his disciples? Do you sense the exorcism of our too glib use of religious words that give lip-service but insufficient life-service? If so, then Mark is beginning to bring his urgent good news to your heart. So may we have eyes to see and ears to hear, and hearts open to Christ’s work in our lives. Amen.