Gleanings From the Text
Jesus had barely just begun. He had been baptized by John, tempted by Satan, and joined by the first disciples. He had hardly said or done anything at this point in Mark’s Gospel before he found himself in the midst of conflict. And what an unexpected place for that first conflict to occur: in the synagogue on the Sabbath Day.
Jesus had arrived in Capernaum and entered the synagogue to worship and teach—an agenda no different from that of any faithful Jewish scholar. But as becomes obvious very quickly in the Gospels, Jesus did not have to say or do much to find himself in the middle of a confrontation.
This opening confrontation in Mark’s Gospel was prompted by what the NRSV translates as an “unclean spirit.” The unclean spirit, sometimes referred to as a demon, inhabited a worshipper in the synagogue, making the juxtaposition of an unclean spirit with the holiest of places even more startling and offensive. The demon speaks through the man to confront Jesus, in the process not only questioning Jesus (“What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?”) but also identifying him (“I know who you are, the Holy One of God”). When Jesus “rebukes” the demon, the demon is expelled from the man with convulsions and cries.
The final scene is one of amazement on the part of the bystanders, the man’s fellow worshippers in the synagogue. They, too, then recognize Jesus’ uniqueness: that he teaches something new imbued with authority. At that point, Jesus’ ministry becomes public and the object of speculation and testing that would persist to his death.
This text is sometimes regarded as a miracle story, but the real subject of the text, as Lamar Williamson notes, is not the miracle but “Jesus’ authority in word and deed” (Mark—Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, 49). The “new teaching” of Jesus is evident from the opening of the pericope (v. 22) to its close (v. 27). The exorcism is a demonstration of Jesus’ power, but that power issues from his word.
Food for Thought
Several dimensions of this text offer rich homiletical “food for thought.” The opening verse indicates the primacy of Sabbath practice for Jesus. The Gospels of Mark, Luke, and John all include a synagogue event early in Jesus’ life and ministry. According to this text, the synagogue on the Sabbath is the place where Jesus reveals his radical new teaching and his authority from God. This should remind us of the primacy and the efficacy of worship for us as those who seek to know and follow Jesus.
Another dimension of the text is the uniqueness of Jesus’ teaching. The preacher might explore more precisely what that unique teaching looked like for those who heard that teaching first-hand and what that teaching looks like for us today. How does Jesus’ unique teaching shape our faith and work in our present world?
Jesus’ unique teaching as portrayed in this text issues from the authority of his word, or, more precisely, the word of God proclaimed through him, authority that stands in contrast to the authority of the scribes, the biblical authorities of the day. There is a word of caution here even for the church today, lest we put too much faith in the human teachings of the church and its leaders. “God alone is Lord of the conscience,” as one of our Presbyterian principles declares. God’s message to us as individuals, while perhaps confirmed or interpreted by the church, is ultimately a word from God to our own minds and hearts.
Of course, there are a couple of challenges for the contemporary preacher of this text. One is the demon possession that prompts the incident. While such a literal understanding of the work of evil spirits may seem anachronistic to modern listeners, we all can attest to the presence and persistence of evil in our world in various guises. The good news in this text, however, is that Jesus demonstrated his power to overcome the forces of evil wherever we may encounter them.
Sink Your Teeth Into This
One does not have to look far to find examples of the power of Jesus’ word set loose in our fearful and powerless world. Naming places, people, and situations that have been healed by the power of Jesus’ word would clearly convey the message of this text. I think of the wonderful words of Martin Luther’s great hymn, “A Mighty Fortress,” in conjunction with this text: “one little word” shall “fell” all the evil that threatens “to undo us.” That “word” is the Word of God in Jesus Christ, the identified Holy One, who speaks with the power and authority of God. Who else, then do we need on our side?
Zink-Sawyer, the Samuel W. Newell, Jr. Professor of Preaching and Worship at Union-PSCE Richmond, focuses on the interaction of homiletics and American religious history with particular attention to women’s preaching. An ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), she served churches in Pennsylvania and Tennessee for 15 years and has served on committees at the presbytery and synod levels. She is editor of the Abingdon Women’s Preaching Annual and author of From Preachers to Suffragists: Women’s Rights and Religious Conviction in the Lives of Three Nineteenth-Century American Clergywomen. She was a Lilly Faculty Fellow of the Association of Theological Schools for 2000–2001.