Veronica Lawson rsm
27 January 2012
Today’s gospel reading recounts the first episode in a section of Mark’s gospel that focuses on a typical day in the ministry of Jesus as authoritative teacher and prophetic healer (1:21-38). The setting is the Capernaum synagogue on the Sabbath, a thoroughly Jewish setting. The verbal forms in the first sentence indicate that teaching in the synagogue was part of Jesus’ customary activity. Jesus is thus located firmly within Israel’s prophetic tradition of teaching and healing.
In the first reading from Deuteronomy (18:15-20), the term ‘prophet’ appears eight times. Moses tells the people that God will respond to their request at Sinai (Horeb) and raise up from among them a prophet like himself, a mediator between God and God’s people, one who will speak God’s word. Prophets do not appoint or authorise themselves: God calls and authorises the prophets to speak God’s word. Failure to heed the prophets carries its own consequences as does the attempt to assume a prophetic role without God’s authorisation. Just as the prophets of old speak the authentic word of God only when they are authorised by the God of Israel, so Jesus of Nazareth, later to identify himself in this gospel as God’s prophet (6:4), speaks and acts ‘with authority’. In other words, he speaks with the authority of the God of Israel.
In this first Markan story of his divinely authorised activity, Jesus is approached by a man ‘with an unclean spirit’. The man’s loud scream sets up a confrontation between the power of God, mediated through Jesus, and the forces of destruction that often take hold of human lives. Jesus silences and expels these destructive forces and thus renders a seriously troubled person whole. Confounding the unclean spirit(s) brings social and communal benefits to the troubled person as well as physical and emotional healing.
God’s reign or empire is made real through a healing action that is perceived as ‘a new teaching’. No word of Jesus’ teaching is reported, only his actions. Those actions are presented as ‘teaching’. We teach by who we are and what we do. For Jesus, as for his disciples, congruence between words and actions is integral to authentic gospel proclamation.
Jesus is demonstrating to his newly formed group of followers that the gospel they are to proclaim is grounded in the ordinary struggles of ordinary people. This gospel carries the power to lift the burdens and make the troubled whole. We may wish to identify the ‘unclean spirits’ that take hold of us from time to time so that we can open ourselves to the power of God mediated through God’s teacher-healers in our time.