Deut 18:15-20; Ps 111:1-10; Mark 1:21-28; 1 Cor 8:1-13
Theirs was a different world. It was a different culture, a different time, a different take on reality and one’s interaction with the world. What they thought and how they understood the world around them was vastly different from our understanding. Mark hadn’t been there in person, but he had heard the stories–and not only from Peter. While tradition tells us Mark was Peter’s Greek interpreter, Mark had likely also heard stories of Jesus from others while growing up. He was too young to have been one of those following in the crowd, but he had heard the stories. It wasn’t just any day someone like Jesus came along. Sitting around a campfire, the dinner table, or amid business in the marketplace, his stories would be told and retold as people tried to make sense of his words, teachings, and actions.
Here was someone who defied expectations. He stood out from the crowd. He healed people. He taught as a rabbi, but had not been privileged to attend the rabbinic schools. He was just a common laborer–a tekton or construction worker. He may have been a craftsman, but most likely not. He was of no privileged background, with no means to study under the better rabbis. Even so, he had a clearer understanding of God than most. His words and actions spoke to something special that money and position had not bought. He did not fit within normal expectations, and the stories rippled widely as people wondered about this rabbi from nowhere.
After all, the Jews were a nation of storytellers. I don’t mean that they were all employed in the profession, but their lives were built on a series of stories. They told and retold them, memorized and chanted them, passing lore from one generation to the next. As commanded in Scripture, they spoke the stories of faith along the road to work, in the fields, at bedtime, and in preparation for the day ahead. The people thought in stories. The people taught in stories. They categorized life through stories of one sort or another. Given the context, this story of Jesus was more significant than most.
Who was this Jesus, anyway? There were lots of rabbis hanging about defending their pet ideas and streams of Jewish tradition. Some were out to make a name for themselves. Some were out to increase their portfolios and comfort. Some were out to lead the people toward a greater degree of faithfulness to Yahweh. Some had a clue, others did not. They asked questions. They told stories. They were the philosophers of Judaism, but they did not exude authority like Jesus.
Mark had heard the stories of healing. They were reminiscent of the stories of the ministries of Elijah and Elisha of old. Jesus performed no magical incantations or scripted ceremonial rites. He did not rush off to make special sacrifices in preparation to heal an individual. That was how it worked among the more traditional faith healers of the day. For them, ceremony was central. The healing was secondary and not a given. The ceremonies were scripted and sometimes prolonged in an attempt to gain attention from supra-human sources, hopefully from God. They were also designed to show that the officiant was actually doing something deserving of pay!
There was none of that in Jesus. He taught in the synagogue. He healed people. Then he cast out evil spirits. There was no show. There was no ceremony. There was no prescribed ritual or incantation by which Jesus gained power over the spirits. He just spoke to them with an authority they had to heed. He spoke. Things happened.
Now, we may not be comfortable with evil spirits, demons, or talk of the gods of the nations around Mark’s contemporaries. We probably live in some sanitized version of the story. Like as not, we’ve come to believe that somehow Jesus was pandering to the lesser understanding of these ignorant people who misconstrued the reality in which they lived. They believed in demons, evil spirits, and such, so Jesus just went along with them. In truth, we would likely say he was healing their psychological disorders, their personality maladjustments. For Mark, it was a question of authority. Whatever the definition of reality we want to stick with, Jesus’ words had impact. They accomplished their mission. They spoke to the issues people faced and brought them to wholeness.
Mark reports this man who was unclean in spirit crying out to Jesus. At that point in his words, this could have just been some disgruntled, sourpuss, mean-spirited sort of a person, just as we would describe them. “Impure in spirit” is his way of putting it. There is something strange about the man’s choice of words and his overall statement, though. There was something wrong with him. It is only when Jesus speaks, however, that Mark gives us a definite understanding of what is going on. Jesus speaks not to the man, but to the reality behind him. As the unclean spirit leaves, there is transformation. It is in this transformation–the visible results of Jesus’ authority–that we find what has truly transpired.
Before the man confronted Jesus, his life was open to interpretation. He may have had psychological problems, may have been under the influence of some evil spirit–one of the demons or gods of the nations around–or he may just have been a strange bird. Since going into exile, the Jews had developed a sense of the demonic. They came to accept that the world was indeed inhabited by some spiritual entities who might be those so-called gods worship by others or some lesser spiritual beings. They could be good or evil, angels or demons in our terminology. They could at times influence people by promoting illness or directing their actions.
Not all evil in the world, sickness or suffering, was attributed to the demonic. Problems were also understood as the result of sin–one’s choices and actions falling shy of God’s will. There weren’t clear cut answers in every case as to what occasioned illness, mean-spiritedness, or insanity. What was clear in this case came as a result of Jesus’ words and dealings with the man.
Jesus chose not to speak to the man. He spoke to what was within him. He spoke to the origin of his words and actions. He spoke to the source of the problem and the greater reality we might wish to ignore or overlook. There was no pomp and ceremony. There was no incantation or magical ritual to be followed or prescribed. Rather, there was authority to address the invisible reality.
It is authority which claimed Mark’s attention. It was authority that claimed the attention of the crowd. It was an authority that even the impure spirit obeyed. There was no question of being right, being wrong, getting one’s way, or self-righteousness. The question was how to respond to the authority of this Jesus. Deuteronomy pointed to the coming prophet from God we must heed. This is what Mark heard in the story: Here is the One we have awaited. His authority is God’s. If even the unclean spirits heed Jesus’ authority, how should we respond in our living?
Paul says it is in living out our love for Christ Jesus that we are united with God. Are we as prepared as this evil spirit to submit our lives to the authority of Christ Jesus, laying aside our own will?
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