Sunday, 29 January 2006 (4th Sunday after Epiphany B, Revised Common Lectionary)
Copyright (C) 2006 by Abigail Ann Young
Our gospel reading this Sunday is from the first chapter of Mark's Gospel -- we're now in Year B, in which we read Mark although, because it's too short to provide all the Sunday gospels needed for a year, we have to "fill in" from other gospels, mostly using John. Mark starts off in a very interesting way. Its first line is, "The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God." So what is this good news? Well, Mark launches immediately into the minstry of John the Baptist. No shepherds, no stable, no star, no mysterious Eastern astrologer-kings, no baby lying in a manger, just John the Baptist, strangely clad, eating bugs, and preaching repentence in the wilderness.
In fact, the first chapter of Mark reads like a series of beginnings, delivered rapid-fire, one image after another in very short, 'punchy' paragraphs. It could be a Power-Point presentation. Ministry 101 -- How to Evangelise Galilee and Judea. Section 1: John the Baptist, the Wilderness Adventure. We move from John the Baptist to Jesus' baptism and spiritual crisis in the wilderness (Mark's recap of the temptations), the opening of his preaching tour of Galilee, and his call of the disciples, all in twenty verses. John gets nearly half of them.
After this whirlwind introduction comes today's gospel, and it's another beginning. Here Jesus opens his ministry in Capernaum with a sabbath sermon and exorcism at the local synagogue. As the story of Jesus's ministry continues, healing on the sabbath is going to become a hot-button issue, one that provokes quite violent responses from people. But here in Capernaum at the beginning, the response is both positive and united, so positive that Capernaum became the centre and headquarters for Jesus' work in Galilee. Some of his new cadre of disciples had homes there, like Peter, and Jesus seems to have moved in with Peter's family, when he wasn't on the road. It was a small village, stretching only a few hundred metres along the shore of the Sea of Galilee and offering a livelihood to a thousand or 1500 people: fishermen, farmers, and artisans, and their families. Not an important place at all, but in an important location -- on the main highway from Damascus. It was a border crossing and customs post -- the Romans kept some soldiers stationed there. The Romans got along well with the locals in Capernaum and their centurion gave money to the local synagogue. A quiet, sleepy fishing town, but not out of touch or remote.
Word about Jesus must have got around the Galilean countryside: his baptism by John had been accompanied by some pretty amazing signs and his emergence as a new preacher after John's sudden arrest would also cause a buzz. The theme -- or mission statement if you will -- for his new preaching tour of Galilee was similar to John's and yet different. Unlike John, Jesus left the wilderness when he began to preach: instead of calling people out to the desert, he comes where they are, where they live, and work, and worship. Jesus calls people to repent too, but repentence is no longer the only thing or even the most important thing. Characteristically, Mark sums up Jesus' message in a single verse: "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news." That too would have people talking.
So when the new preacher arrives in town and comes with his local friends to Capernaum's synagogue, he's treated as an important visitor. As was the custom then, he's asked to say a few words about Scripture reading. Probably, though Mark doesn't mention it, Jesus was asked to read the lesson as well as give a homily, just as happened when he went home to Nazareth later on. It would be great to know what was in that sermon, to know what Jesus said to the people of Capernaum that sabbath -- unfortunately, Mark's not so interested in what Jesus says as he is in what others say about him. At this point we see Jesus mostly through the eyes of others, in this case through two reactions to his sermon.
Most people are very excited -- "They were astounded at his teaching," Mark tells us, "for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes." What does this mean? The scribes were a very important part of the religious "establishment" in Jesus's time. A sort of cross between a lawyer and a pastor, the scribe knew the law and interpreted it. Most importantly, he applied it to everyday life, helping people to keep their homes and lives ordered in accordance with God's will and scripture. Everyone in that synagogue in Capernaum would have experience of the scribes' teaching in explaining the scriptures and of their guidance in living. If anyone in the religious world of Jesus' day had authority, it was the scribes. But it wasn't their own, they didn't have independant authority -- a scribe didn't speak for himself when he interpreted the law, he relied on rabbinic tradition and the Mishnah, the oral law that was believed to have been given to Moses and passed down by word of mouth for generations before it was put in writing.
The congregation heard from Jesus that evening in Capernaum teaching with authority. But it was completely different from the traditional sort of teaching they were used to from the scribes. Still it had an authenticity that made it compelling. So compelling that Mark tells us those who were opposed to God's kingdom were moved to protest against it. As the service continued, a man "with an unclean spirit" was heard.
We're not told much about this man, not his name or how long he had been afflicted, where he was from or how old he was. Predictably, modern commentators and preachers tend to get hung up on the identity of the unclean spirit, trying to figure out what was really wrong with the man and whether Jesus exorcised a demon or healed a mental illness. For Mark the situation is straightforward -- the unclean spirit recognised Jesus and was immediately hostile to him because it was part of a world that was inimical to the Kingdom of God that came near in the person of Jesus. In a sense, it does not matter to us whether the man was possessed by a demon or afflicted by disease. What matters is how Jesus reacted to the interruption in the evening's prayers.
The man, or rather, the spirit that is tormenting him, shouts at Jesus, disrupting the service. His words were bizaare: "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." Imagine if someone stood up some Sunday morning, pointed at the preacher and cried out, "Have you come to destroy us?" These words may have sounded a little threatening to the on-lookers. I think it says a lot about the community at Capernaum that this man was part of the congregation that sabbath day and not shut away at home or shut out of the gathering. What does Jesus do? He deals with the disruption not by blaming the man or asking him to be removed, but by removing the real source of the problem. He heals the man by removing his affliction. The congregation now passes from astonishment to amazement and they ask each other what's going on. "A new teaching -- with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits and they obey him."
So both after his homily and after his healing, what the people of Capernaum can't get over is Jesus' authority, or rather the authority of his teaching. Perceptively they see that the healing of the possessed man is itself a kind of teaching, albeit in deeds rather than in words. The healing shows them and us that Jesus taught with integrity and compassion. It would have done no good to tell that man "Repent, and believe in the good news!" without freeing him from the demons that bound him. Jesus makes the man whole so that he can hear and respond to God's call. Whether Jesus is teaching by word or by action, we (like the people of Capernaum) see the authority of his teaching when we see that this teaching depends not on human learning and tradition, like the scribes' teaching, but on God's Kingdom and its nearness.
In our Old Testment lesson, we heard Moses promise the people that God will raise up another prophet for them after he has died. God will put God's own words in the mouth of this new prophet, Moses' successor, so that through him they can know what God's will is. That is the authority that the people of Capernaum recognise when they hear Jesus teach, the authority that comes from God's own words. Jesus needs no human tradition, passed down from scribes long gone, in order to teach, because he has the Father's words in his mouth. Indeed as the divine Word through which all things were made, Jesus could speak nothing less. May God give us grace to recognise that Word when we meet him, and to hear his teaching, Amen.