Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
February 1, 2009 (Lectionary 4)
Psalm 111 (10)
1 Corinthians 8:1-13
Prayer of the Day
Compassionate God, you gather the whole universe into your radiant presence and continually reveal your Son as our Savior. Bring wholeness to all that is broken and speak truth to us in our confusion, that all creation will see and know your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
Alleluia. The people who sat in darkness have seen | a great light;
for those who sat in the shadow of death | light has dawned. Alleluia. (Matt. 4:16)
1. CONTEXT: Mark 1:21-28
We have here not merely the first in a series of healing/exorcism
accounts demonstrating the authority of Jesus, but also the
introduction of something more ominous and mysterious, a pattern which
is key to Mark's peculiar presentation of our Lord's ministry and
On one level this is certainly an Epiphany reading, a story about
light overcoming darkness, but it is also a story of that
misunderstanding and detour which will finally exhaust and destroy
Jesus. Already here the wind begins to blow toward Golgotha.
In a setting of literary, prophetic, and baptismal anticipation (vv. 1-8),
Jesus from Nazareth has arrived on the scene, been baptized, and has
received the Holy Spirit and the revelation of a messianic identity
(vv. 9-11). God and the angelic company (cf. v. 13) know who this
Jesus is (and we the readers or hearers of the narrative have been clued in),
but the human community does not yet know.
What God knows, however, Satan and his minions also know. Jesus was
immediately driven by the Spirit into the wilderness for a forty day
struggle with the tempter, and the conflict between Jesus and the
demonic realm did not of course end there. In today's pericope the battle is
Jesus has begun his mission of proclamation and teaching, announcing
the Kingdom and calling to repentance and faith (vv. 14 & 15). He has
also called disciples into his company, with words of still cryptic
meaning but of tremendous and immediate authority (vv. 16-20).
Now that authority is demonstrated further. Jesus is first recognized
as a powerful teacher, and then seen as one whose power extends to the
spiritual world, commanding obedience even from unclean spirits. Yet
note that the attention of the people focuses on the authority of
Jesus and his teaching rather than on the content of that teaching itself.
It is Jesus' fame, not the news of the Kingdom, which goes out from Capernaum.
In dealing with the unclean spirit who recognizes and names him as
God's holy one, Jesus must of course respond in the pattern of his own
teaching and show forth the Kingdom in compassion and healing, but he
will thereby also become all the more the focus of the people's attention, the
superstar and healer, the messenger eclipsing the message. Jesus'
repeated silencing of the demons who can proclaim his identity may thus be
attempts to limit the damage. (Human lips will not speak the secret until
Peter's "confession" in Chapter 8, and even then Jesus will enjoin
silence.) Yet the encounter with the demonic makes the exorcism
inevitable, and Jesus is launched on his doomed career as a celebrity.
1b. Text: Mark 1:21-28
1:21 They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught.
1:22 They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.
1:23 Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit,
1:24 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."
1:25 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, "Be silent, and come out of him!"
1:26 And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him.
1:27 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."
1:28 At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.
21και εισπορευονται εις καφαρναουμ. και ευθυς τοις σαββασιν εισελθων εις την συναγωγην εδιδασκεν. 22και εξεπλησσοντο επι τη διδαχη αυτου, ην γαρ διδασκων αυτους ως εξουσιαν εχων και ουχ ως οι γραμματεις. 23και ευθυς ην εν τη συναγωγη αυτων ανθρωπος εν πνευματι ακαθαρτω, και ανεκραξεν 24λεγων, τι ημιν και σοι, ιησου ναζαρηνε; ηλθες απολεσαι ημας; οιδα σε τις ει, ο αγιος του θεου. 25και επετιμησεν αυτω ο ιησους λεγων, φιμωθητι και εξελθε εξ αυτου. 26και σπαραξαν αυτον το πνευμα το ακαθαρτον και φωνησαν φωνη μεγαλη εξηλθεν εξ αυτου. 27και εθαμβηθησαν απαντες, ωστε συζητειν προς εαυτους λεγοντας, τι εστιν τουτο; διδαχη καινη κατ εξουσιαν: και τοις πνευμασι τοις ακαθαρτοις επιτασσει, και υπακουουσιν αυτω. 28και εξηλθεν η ακοη αυτου ευθυς πανταχου εις ολην την περιχωρον της γαλιλαιας.
Novum Testamentum Graece, Nestle-Aland 26th edition 1979, Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, Stuttgart;
The Greek New Testament, 3rd edition 1975, United Bible Societies, London
2. ANALYSIS: Mark 1:21-28
Mk 1:21 - euthus ("immediately") is used 42 times in Mark, expressing
both the urgency of Jesus himself and the driving pace of the narrative. In
this verse that kairotic adverb sits awkwardly next to the chronological
"on the Sabbath." (The NRSV chooses to ignore *euthus* as if it were just
a filler word here, but does translate its recurrences in vv. 23 & 28.)
Jesus begins his ministry as one of teaching in a place and time for
teaching. The content of his teaching is presumably the announcement of the
Kingdom described in vv. 14-15 and/or its parabolic elaboration as evidenced
in chapter 4 etc. A distinction might be made between the *kerysson* of
v. 14 and the *edidasken* of this verse, but the continuity seems to
me more compelling than the difference. It is certainly possible to
imagine this teaching in terms of the fulfillment exegesis described in Lk
4:16-21, or as the ethical instruction which figures so extensively in both Mt
and Lk, but the point is still that Jesus' chosen focus is teaching. The
venue is appropriate to that function, in a building and on a day normally
associated with peace and sanctity. There is no indication that *Jesus* has
chosen this place for the kind of confrontation with the demonic which will
1:22 - Rather than recounting Jesus' teaching, Mark at once moves to
the crowd's reaction. The effect here is double-edged: we too are to
recognize the power of Jesus' teaching, an immediate authority contrasted with
the derivative argumentation of "the scribes," but that recognition
among the people now also eclipses the teaching itself. They do not speak about
the Kingdom, but about Jesus. Even the talk about the authority of the
teaching is really about the teacher. With this typically Marcan irony, the
power of Jesus is at once illustrated and subverted.
1:23-24 - Now (*euthus* again) comes the confrontation with the
unclean spirit, who shouts aloud through the possessed man in
recognition of Jesus. We are returned to awareness that the mission of
Jesus means war with Satan and all his demons. Against the unclean
spirits, Jesus has come with the holy Spirit (cf. v. 8). Of course
demons will recognize this teacher as both "Jesus the Nazarene" and "the Holy
One of God," and will know that what is at stake between them and him
(*hemin kai soi*) entails their destruction. While Jesus' very
presence itself can be understood as a sort of divine invasion against Satanic
power, however, note that it is the demon who, with apparent
recklessness, initiates this particular skirmish.
1:25 - "Be silent"-- The force of *phimotheti* might better be
rendered as "Shut up!" The verb has to do with putting on a muzzle or tying an
object up tight, and we can hear in this encounter the noise and
passion of real conflict. It may be argued that this imperative is simply part of the
exorcism, and that Jesus would naturally silence the shouting demon as
he uses his own speech to cast it out. The emphasis on the spirit's
recognition of Jesus in the preceding verse, however, coupled with all the
subsequent instances of such secrecy (most immediately in 1:34), argue
for a specific and urgent concern on Jesus' part. He does not want to be identified.
1:26 - Jesus words take immediate effect. The violence and suffering
associated with demonic powers-- and also with their exorcism from
human flesh-- is here tersely but movingly rendered. In 5:1-15, in a
story laced with humor as well as compassion and irony, Mark will provide a
more detailed pathology of possession.
1:27 - "They were all amazed" (*ethambethesan*) by this
demonstration of Jesus' authority, for he not merely teaches
powerfully but is able to command unclean spirits. That ability will later be
used by the scribes as an argument against him (3:23), but now the reaction
of the crowd is admiration, and they discuss this numinous event
among themselves. Their rather striking phrase *didache kaine kat'
exousian*, "a new teaching with authority," is open to several
interpretations and may carry both intentional meaning and hidden
truth. The text might of course be punctuated to make *kat' exousian*
modify the exorcism, but even then the question of the relationship
between Jesus' teaching and his authority remains. Has Jesus
demonstrated the authority of his previous teaching by this exorcism,
or is now the exorcism itself the "new teaching" for the crowd? Is the
unity of Jesus' teaching with his victory over the demonic being
implied or obscured? The crowd speaks profound truth about Jesus,
and we are of course to join in their sense of wonder, but we may also
note here a quality of abstraction: Jesus is an object for admiration
and a wonderful topic for discussion. This verse does stand in
apposition to and confirmation of verse 23, but it also extends the
self-subversive strains noted there.
1:28 - This exorcism results in the immediate (*euthus*) spread of
Jesus' fame everywhere (*pantachou*) in the surrounding region. Soon Jesus
will be constantly sought out by both the curious and those in need of
healing (1:32, 37, 45; 2:2, 13, etc.). This exorcism is of course the first of
many healings, victories for Jesus and for the Kingdom which he
champions, driving back the dominion of Satan. Nonetheless, I would suggest also
a negative significance in the fact that it is Jesus' fame rather than
the *euangelion* which now spreads like proverbial wildfire.
That fame, and the expectations which go with it, will have fatal
consequences for Jesus and for his cause. Jesus' self-described
*mission* of preaching and teaching (e.g. 1:38) must be carried out in
the midst of his *ministry* of healing and exorcism. There is no
contradiction there, for the one entails the other. By his anointed
nature, moreover, Jesus must do God's works of compassion and power.
And yet the result will not only obscure the hearing of his gospel,
it will drain him and finally destroy him. It is hardly surprising, then,
that Jesus seeks to keep both demons and humans from proclaiming his
Thus this healing may be understood as a tactical but Pyrrhic victory
for Jesus. Strategically, it is Satan who is winning, and Jesus who is
being drawn on to misunderstanding and defeat. It may in fact be this hidden
drama which explains not only Jesus' silencing of the demon but that
unclean spirit's apparent eagerness to confront the Christ. The
demon's note of mockery in v. 24 was then not just empty bravado. Satan will
gladly expend his forces for defeats like this.
We of course know the further and final irony that defeat of Jesus to
which these Pyrrhic victories lead will itself mysteriously be turned
to triumph. In a sense, the messenger is the message after all. Jesus
will take that mystery into the definition of his own mission midway
through the the narrative (Mk 8:31). But we're not there yet.
3. STRATEGY: Mark 1:21-28
Several points from this text seem to me of particular value-- indeed
urgency-- for proclamation. They could be developed either singly or
in relation to each other:
1) The Reality of the Demonic-- There is a need to recognize
complexity and moral ambiguity in this world, but it is often right and helpful
for us to be called back to the stark dualism underlying a text like this.
There are choices between evil and good, bondage and freedom,
isolation and community. The Gospel of God's Kingdom is not just about
virtue or serenity, about not being naughty or anxious; it is a
literally a matter of life and death. Many of the folks out there in "pewland" are
actively struggling with demonic powers in their own lives, and this
story can provide them with affirmation and courage for that struggle.
Others in your congregation are probably adrift in trivialities and
empty pastimes; they too might be blessed if this story helps point
them back to the moral significance of their existence.
Preaching about this will mean some concrete illustration(s) of what
we mean by the demonic, the forms of enslavement and destruction that you
see at work. It might also be helpful to draw on the imagery of the
text itself here. Note, for example, the contrast of singular and plural in
the demon's words to Jesus in v. 24. The work of demons, that difference
suggests, involves scattering and dividing up, but God's Holy One
stands against them as a sign of healing and integration.
2) The Force of the Kingdom-- This story does tell of a victory over
the demonic and a liberation from human bondage, and again I think that a
lot of folks can be blessed and drawn back from despair by this image and
reminder of the Holy Spirit's power to cast out the unclean ones.
Twelve Step programs have an effective way of speaking both about the
recognition of powerlessness and about the further truth that empowers. We are not
simply slaves or toys for our demons. To use Jesus' later imagery,
sometimes we see Satan's house plundered, and can believe that he has
been bound. The exposition and celebration of such epiphanies can
empower with hope.
3) The Detours of Compassion-- If you accept the contention of the
above analysis, the example of Jesus' healing ministry becomes
particularly moving. If, as I have argued, his command of silence indicates that he
knew he was being led down a road he did not choose, and he recognized the
dire implications of this ministry for his intended mission, then we
would do well to note how he let himself be interrupted. He may have
pleaded for secrecy and even tried to avoid the searching crowds, but when
confronted with the concreteness of human suffering and need, he responded
with immediate compassion. (So also, in the face of oppression and
arrogance, he would erupt in immediate and holy anger.) Even when he knew he was
falling into Satan's trap, he didn't hesitate. With all due care about
messianic delusions and codependency traps, we are still challenged by
that example, for the needs of others often intrude as interruptions
on our agendas as well.
4) The Limits of Healing-- Finally, if this story is not just about
healing and triumph but about a proclamation misunderstood and a
messiah drawn on towards his destruction, it might provide a helpful
way to deal with the problem of disappointed expectations and the
persistence of human suffering. It is so very clear here that this
exorcism is a sign of the Kingdom and a work of the Holy Spirit. Such signs are
still to be enacted and celebrated, but by themselves they are
temporary and treacherous victories, small against the cunning power
of Satan. The context of this sign is rather the proclamation of the
greater Kingdom which it reflects, and the Kingdom which finally
triumphs not in the miracles and power of Jesus, but on the Cross
where his faithfulness and compassion will bind and exhaust him.
4. FURTHER READING: Mark 1:21-28
For those who have not seen them, I recommend the discussions of
Mark's Christology in Arland Hultgren's excellent CHRIST AND HIS
BENEFITS (Fortress, 1987), esp. pp. 57-67, and Jack Dean Kingsbury's
THE CHRISTOLOGY OF MARK'S GOSPEL (Fortress, 1983). In addition to
many fine standard commentaries (e.g. Juel, Moule, or Nineham), I urge you
to check out Ched Myer's powerful reading of Mark in BINDING THE STRONG
MAN (Orbis, 1988). John Drury's article in Alter and Kermode's
LITERARY GUIDE TO THE BIBLE (Harvard, 1987) and Werner Kelber's MARK'S STORY OF JESUS (Fortress, 1979) are also incisive. (None of these authorities
reads quite the same pattern of irony for which I am arguing here, but I
think they're great anyway.)
5. MUSIC SUGGESTIONS: Mark 1:21-28
LORD, WHOSE LOVE IN HUMBLE SERVICE (LBW 423; HB 610)
GOD OF GRACE & GOD OF GLORY (LBW 415; HB 594,595) / O FOR A THOUSAND
TONGUES TO SING (LBW 559; HB 493)
O GOD, EMPOWER US (LBW 422)
A MIGHTY FORTRESS (LBW 228,229 [though I'd recommend the old
translation found in SBH & HB]; HB 687,688)
HAIL TO THE LORD'S ANOINTED (LBW 87; HB 616)
Exegete – Rev. John Stendahl - Lutheran Church of the Newtons,
Newton Centre, Massachusetts
Lexegete © 2009
North Dartmouth,MA 02747