They went to Capernaum. At once, on the sabbath, Jesus went into the synagogue and taught. They were astonished at his teaching. He wasn’t like the legal teachers; he said things on his own authority. All at once, in their synagogue, there was a man with an unclean spirit. ‘What business have you got with us, Jesus of Nazareth?’ he yelled. ‘Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are: you’re God’s Holy One!’ ‘Be quiet!’ ordered Jesus. ‘And come out of him!’ The unclean spirit convulsed the man, gave a great shout, and came out of him. Everyone was astonished. ‘What’s this?’ they started to say to each other. ‘New teaching – with real authority! He even tells the unclean spirits what to do, and they do it!’ Word about Jesus spread at once, all over the surrounding district of Galilee.
It was the organist’s night off. His deputy, fresh from college and looking even younger than he actually was, took charge of the choir. The singers – a good-hearted lot, but choirs will be choirs – were, almost instinctively, pushing the boundaries to see what would happen. Trivial things: a note fluffed here, a lead missed there. And – the most trivial of all, but a telltale sign of implicit rebellion – some were wearing brown shoes, not the regulation black.
I watched as they processed back after the service. The young man didn’t bat an eyelid. Very quietly, but with deadly accuracy, he alerted them to the mistakes. ‘And, gentlemen,’ he added, ‘black shoes, please.’ He didn’t raise his voice. He didn’t need to. He was in charge, and they knew it. Point made. It was good to see.
The surprise of authority – someone’s in charge here! We’d better sit up and take notice! – is what Mark is highlighting in this early incident in Jesus’ public career. And it shows what so much of the gospel is all about. Jesus was going about telling people that God was at last becoming king. And he was behaving as if he, himself, was in charge – as if he were the king. There’s the puzzle: as much a puzzle for Jesus’ first hearers, and for Mark’s as well, as it is for us.
Mark contrasts Jesus’ authority with that of ‘the legal teachers’. We may not immediately pick up the significance of that. In the modern Western world, ‘legal teachers’ would presumably be teaching in a law school, where young practitioners would be trained for their various tasks. But in ancient Israel a ‘legal teacher’ was much more than that.
Israel’s ‘law’, after all, went back to Moses – or rather, to God himself, on Mount Sinai. The law, for them, wasn’t just a system of rules and regulations. It was (so they believed) the ultimate revelation of what it meant to be human. What it meant to be God’s people. And when the Jewish people were hemmed in and oppressed by pagan enemies – as they were in Jesus’ day – the law was the badge they wore, proudly, to show that they really belonged to God even if things were tough just now. To ‘teach the law’ in that world was much more than training the next generation of barristers. It meant setting the social and cultural boundaries. It meant maintaining God’s people in their distinct, and special, identity.
But the people who taught the law did so not on their own authority but by interpreting and applying existing law, both written and oral. ‘This is what so-and-so taught,’ they would say, quoting both recent and ancient authorities. But Jesus didn’t do that. As we see in the other gospels (the Sermon on the Mount, for instance), he was quite outspoken. ‘You’ve heard that it was said . . . but I say to you . . . !’ He behaved, and spoke, as if he was in charge.
And he backed up his speaking with action. Here we run into a problem – for us. In Jesus’ world, as in many parts of the world today (but not usually so visibly in the modern West), people’s lives were blighted by forces or powers beyond their control, forces that seemed to take them over. People say, in our world, ‘I don’t know what made me do it.’ People in Jesus’ world reckoned they did know why some people seemed totally ‘off the rails’: there were hostile ‘spiritual’ forces out there, hard to define, but powerful in their effect. Calling such a force a ‘demon’ or an ‘unclean spirit’ doesn’t mean they knew exactly what it was. It was a way of saying that the person was over-powered by an outside force. A malign power from beyond themselves.
And part of the point of God becoming king at last, which was the centre of the message of Jesus, was that all rival powers were being defeated. Jesus came with power and authority greater than the forces that had corrupted and defaced human lives. For God to become king meant that all other forces had to be dethroned. And the most obvious sign of that was that the dark, shadowy forces that had seized control of some benighted individuals were being decisively challenged.
These ‘forces’ were cunning. They seemed to know too much. Here and elsewhere we see the people they controlled shouting out what Jesus wanted at that stage to keep secret. He was God’s Holy One (verse 24); and he had come, ultimately, to destroy all forces of evil in the world. They seemed to have an ‘inside track’ on spiritual realities. (Whether we moderns like it or not, by the way, this is a sure sign that stories like this weren’t made up. The early Christians were unlikely to invent ‘testimony’ to Jesus from the lips of highly disturbed individuals.)
For Mark, and I suggest for us, stories like this should flag up the fact that there are many things in the world that appear to go horribly wrong which the best brains we have can’t even analyse, let alone solve. The experience of terrifying and inhumane regimes around the world over the last century teaches us that forces can be unleashed which make people do unimaginably terrible things to one another. And all this has happened at a time when, in the modern Western world at least, people have banished ‘religion’, and even Jesus, to the sidelines, into the corner labelled ‘personal therapy and lifestyle’.
Fortunately, Jesus refuses to stay in such a corner – just as he refused to fit into the expectations of the townsfolk at Capernaum. He insists on being in charge, even though it will be at the cost of his own life. That is the pattern of the whole gospel, ending up on the cross itself where, strangely, Jesus defeats all the powers of darkness.
Sovereign Lord, help us to trust you when things seem out of control.