Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
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. (Mark 1:21-28 – NRSV)
Matthew 8:14-15 and Luke 4:38-39 both draw on this text of Mark.
“After narrating the initial call of companions for his mission of proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, where Jesus appears as one whose word can uproot people’s lives, Mark continues his focus on Jesus as the Spirit-endowed stronger one by portraying a ‘paradigmatic day’ that inaugurates his ministry. This day, a Sabbath, involves demonstration of his power as a teacher through confrontation with an unclean spirit (1:21–28), through the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law (1:29–31), and by summary statements on healing and exorcism (1:32–34). The day is structured in a pattern of ABAʹ, since it begins and ends with casting out of demons and injunctions of silence to the demons. Some authors have viewed the day as the first of a ‘new creation’, but there is little direct allusion to creation motifs. More likely this day foreshadows the final section of the gospel, another Sabbath (16:1) between the day of Jesus’ condemnation and death (which is clearly defined by time indications: 15:1, 25, 33, 34) and the day of his raising up” (J R Donahue, & D J Harrington, The Gospel of Mark, Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2002, 82).
Capernaum: A town on the N-W edge of the Sea of Galilee, about 4kms from the source of the Jordan River. “Josephus says it was a fertile and prosperous area known also for its fishing industry (War 3.516–521). In the gospels it is the center of Jesus’ Galilean ministry, and in Mark 2:1 it is the site of the ‘home’ (oikia) of Jesus (see Matt 4:13, who mentions explicitly a departure from Nazareth). Jesus first teaches in the synagogue there (1:21), heals Peter’s mother-in-law and others at the house of Peter and Andrew (1:29–34), and passes through there on his way to Jerusalem (9:33). In the Q source Jesus heals the centurion’s son there (Matt 8:5–17; Luke 7:1–10; cf. John 4:46–54), but ends up cursing the town (Matt 11:23–24; Luke 10:15) for its lack of response to his preaching about God’s kingdom and repentance. Extensive excavations in recent years have uncovered an early synagogue (second or third century c.e.) and an octagonal fifth-century church built on the ruins of an earlier house church, which has been claimed to have been the site of Peter’s house in the first century.” (J R Donahue, & D J Harrington, op cit, 78.)
when the sabbath came: The original Greek expression can be read as implying a regular activity – normally on the Sabbath Jesus would go to the synagogue and teach. There is considerable evidence that Jesus was raised within a practicing Jewish family and continued to live as a faithful Jew when he left home. Though, after his rejection from the synagogue in Nazareth – see Mark 6:2 – we do not hear Mark tell of any other times Jesus entered a synagogue. The synagogue came to symbolize a place of hostility to Jesus – see Mark 12:39; 13:9 and Jesus does his teaching in private houses – see Mark 7:17; 9:28, 33–50; 10:10–12 – or in the open – see 2:13; 3:32; 4:1; 10:1. He is also generally available to the people no matter where he is.
synagogue: The word “synagogue” (from the Greek synagōgē, “assembling”) can mean a gathering of people or the place where people gather. As a building it was a place for study of the Law and religious instruction. The Hebrew qehala, the Greek ekklesia – used in the Septuagint to translate the Hebrew, qehala, and in the Christian Scriptures to name the gathering of Christians for teaching and worship – and the Greek synagōgē, each carry the notions of a gathering of people called together by God.
astounded: “One of the salient characteristics of Mark is the motif of surprise, wonder, awe, and fear (appearing over 34 times). Such reactions embrace all aspects of Jesus’ ministry: (1) in reaction to his teaching (1:22; 6:2; 10:24, 26; 11:18, 12:17); (2) as a conclusion to miracle stories (1:17; 2:12; 4:41; 5:15, 20, 33, 42; 6:50, 51; 7:37); (3) in narratives of divine epiphanies (4:41; 6:50–51; 9:6; 16:5; 16:8); (4) notices about the fright of the disciples at predictions of the Passion (9:32; 10:33; cf. 14:33, the fright of Jesus); and (5) reactions by opponents, both before and during the Passion of Jesus (11:18; 12:12; 15:5, 44). Though reactions of awe and wonder are a formal element of miracle stories, the emphasis Mark gives to them establishes a rapport with the reader and becomes a symbolic reaction to the whole gospel.” (J R Donahue & D J Harrington, op cit, 79.)
scribes: “Scribes were, first of all, experts in the Torah who were capable of issuing binding decisions on its interpretation. Scribal knowledge of the Torah, and the means by which it was attained, were often regarded as esoteric enlightenment, and hence the more authoritative. With the growth of the synagogue, scribes became, secondly, teachers of the Torah, whose reputation was honored by the title “rabbi,” meaning “my great one.” Finally, scribes were legal jurists in the broad sense of the term. “Scribe” thus combined the offices of Torah professor, teacher and moralist, and civil lawyer, in that order. Their erudition and prestige reached legendary proportions by the first century, surpassing on occasion that of the high priest (b. Yoma 71b). Only scribes (apart from the chief priests and members of the patrician families) could enter the Sanhedrin. Commoners deferred to scribes as they walked through the streets. The first seats in the synagogues were reserved for scribes, and people rose to their feet when they entered a room” (J R Edwards, The Gospel according to Mark, Grand Rapids, MI; Leicester, England: Eerdmans; Apollos, 2002, 54).
his teaching: There is a paradox in Mark’s Gospel. Compared with Matthew and Luke, Mark makes much of Jesus as a teacher but in fact gives us little of the content of his teaching. Mark focuses more on the actions of Jesus. On the other hand, “Matthew (in his five great speeches) and Luke (in his greatly expanded journey narrative) make substantial additions to the content of Jesus’ teaching.” (Ibid.)
Jesus rebuked (the unclean spirit), saying: ‘Be silent’: There is a delightful irony here. The unclean spirits know who Jesus is, they name him and declare him, in a way bearing witness to him. The religious authorities are, for the most part, unwilling or unable to name him or declare him or bear witness to him. Another theme at work here is the so-called “messianic secret”. Jesus does not want his identity to be revealed. Perhaps because it will distract him – and the people – from his true purpose which is to go up to Jerusalem and the Cross?
the holy one of God: Jesus is called by this title only here and in Luke 4:34 and John 6:69. The phrase is not found elsewhere in the nt, and rarely in the ot: 2 Kgs 4:9 (Elisha); Judg 16:17 (Samson); and Ps 106:16 (Aaron). The word “holy” suggests consecration to God and distinguishes Jesus who received the Spirit (1:9–11) and will baptize with the Holy Spirit (1:8) from the “unclean spirit.” Since the Hebrew term nazir also means “consecrated, holy,” some have seen a word play here on “Nazarene.”
Authority is a mysterious thing. We may not be able to describe it well, but we certainly know it when we encounter it. We also know it when it is absent. Recall your memories of school. There were teachers who had – by appointment and academic qualification – the authority to be in the classroom. But they were inadequate to the task. The students would sense their lack of authority very quickly. Authority by appointment gets you only so far. There is much more to authority than that. Some have it, some do not.
In today’s Gospel – Mark 1:21-28 – we read: “They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes”. What have the listeners sensed about Jesus?
Mark uses the Greek word exousia nine time when naming Jesus’ authority – on six occasions it is a direct reference to Jesus (1:22, 27; 2:10; 11:28, 29, 33) and on three occasions it refers to the authority Jesus has conferred on the apostles (3:15; 6:7; 13:34). Typically, in the literature of the time, the word, exousia, is not used of authority bestowed by appointment in a human system. It is rather a manifestation of divine presence. From the outset, Mark portrays Jesus as the very presence of God. Everything Jesus is and does communicates the presence of God. Thus, the authority the listeners sense, is the authority of God.
Recall the very first sentence of Mark’s Gospel: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”. Mark recognizes John the Baptist as the one whose role it is to “prepare the way of the Lord” (Mark 1:3). John tells the people: “I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (Mark 1:8). Finally, Mark tells us that “Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased’” (Mark 1:9-11).
Many years ago, I had an experience of listening to a homily that left me with some serious questions. The preacher was a person with a fine intellect. He was also an eminent theologian. I could not object to anything he said in the homily. It was well-prepared, well-constructed and well-presented. Yet, I had a disturbing sense that there was something absent. I found myself asking: Is it possible to give a “good” homily that lacks the authority of Jesus Christ? I believe it is. Ultimately, the authority for – and in – all Christian preaching, teaching and evangelizing, is Jesus himself. Not us. Not our intellects or learning or cleverness. It is Jesus. If he is absent, then the cleverer we are the worse it is.
Do you know anyone who has this authority? Does your presence communicate the presence of God?