This is the second installment in the online commentary on the Gospel of Mark, which I will blog on throughout the liturgical year. Please see the first installment here.
21 They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22 They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23 Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 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." 25 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, "Be silent, and come out of him!" 26 And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 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." 28 At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee. (NRSV)
As soon as Act 1. Scene 2 opens, we notice that Jesus is not alone. In the previous and opening scene, Jesus has pronounced the coming of the Kingdom of God and called followers. When he travels to Capaernaum, he travels with the followers he has just called upon announcing the Kingdom. The essential and immediate next step is acting to create that Kingdom; this is essential not just chronologically, but dramatically, so Mark’s next scene is the setting of the tone for the whole story. Mark does not introduce Jesus’ next acts, or place them in context, the audience reads or hears what he does next as the events are occurring. Mark does something else in this scene without pronouncing it, apart from the events themselves unfolding, and that is the declaration of the enemy. If a new Kingdom is to be established, it follows that an old Kingdom must be replaced. When will the battle be engaged? Who represents the old Kingdom?
Jesus initial activity is to enter the synagogue on the Sabbath and teach, which presents us with a wholly Jewish context for Jesus’ teaching (1:21). It is also indicates a part of the conflict that will permeate this narrative, though it is not the enemy against whom Jesus is battling, as the people in the synagogue are “astounded” at Jesus’ teaching, since he teaches with “authority” (exousia). That is, it is the people of the synagogue who recognize the authority of Jesus and his teaching. On the other hand, Mark foreshadows conflict to come as the same people who accept Jesus' teaching as having "authority," contrast Jesus teaching with the that of the Scribes, to the detriment of the Scribes. The Scribes, we will soon learn, are religious authorities, and though they are not even present in this scene, Mark has alerted us to tensions which will arise in Jesus' mission.
The subsequent picture brings the enemy in full view, a man with “an unclean spirit” appears in the synagogue, and it is the “unclean spirit” who is a representative of the enemy. It is the “unclean spirit,” too, who recognizes Jesus and establishes his authority for the listeners and onlookers in the synagogue: he knows this is Jesus of Nazareth, he calls him by name, so when he identifies him as “the Holy One of God,” we trust that whatever the source of knowledge for the “unclean spirit,” he has knowledge. More than that, it is the “unclean spirit,” the enemy, who recognizes Jesus’ ultimate task first – “Have you come to destroy us?”
Jesus does not answer, instead he demonstrates his power and authority and intent, indeed, to “destroy” them by saying simply, "Be silent, and come out of him!" (1:25). The “unclean spirit” obeys upon Jesus’ request, which is the most powerful display of Jesus’ authority thus far in the unfolding drama. Even in his exit, in “convulsing him and crying with a loud voice” (1:26), Mark demonstrates the chaos of the old Kingdom, which does not care for its subjects, but desires only to overpower and possess them as objects.
The response of the people in the synagogue, who earlier proclaimed the authority of Jesus’ speech, is now to proclaim the authority of Jesus’ deeds, his actions. They repeat the word, “authority” (exousia), but struggle to understand who Jesus is or what his purpose is, as “they kept on asking one another, ‘What is this? A new teaching—with authority!’” (1:27). It is in the repetition of the questioning that Mark alerts us that the struggle for meaning is underway – here is authority, in teaching and deeds, but what does it mean? What is its purpose?
The story is just beginning, but the reader is cast in the center of the drama, and we must imagine ourselves either reading, hearing or seeing this drama unfold before us for the first time, as we too are asked to wonder, what is the purpose of this man? As witnesses to Mark’s narrative, we are a step ahead of those who encounter Jesus for the first time in the narrative, but as this scene ends, and “at once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee” (1:28), we know that this is only the beginning of the story. He has been identified as man of authority, who has the authority not just of speech, but of deeds, who is gaining fame, but the enemy has only just been identified, and all we have seen is a skirmish. Will the enemy give up their Kingdom without a fight? And what of the scribes, whose authority has been contrasted with that of Jesus, but have not even yet entered the picture?
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