Commentary: Mark 1:21-28
The Gospel of Mark divides into four large narrative sections. The prelude to the Gospel of Mark (1:1-15) begins with John's prophetic announcement in the wilderness (1:2-8) and concludes with Jesus' prophetic announcement of the coming reign of God (1:14-15). The first part of Jesus' ministry (1:16-8:26) begins with the calling of the disciples (1:16-20) and concludes with the healing of the blind man at Bethsaida (8:22-26). The second part of Jesus' ministry begins with the hinge of the gospel, the confession of Peter (8:27-33) and concludes with the healing of blind Bartimaeus (10:46-52). The final portion of the gospel is devoted to Jesus' last days in Jerusalem (11:1-16:8).
Our text for today, the exorcism in the synagogue at Capernahum, is the first public act of Jesus that draws sharp criticism. It is therefore an important text because it communicates why Jesus' ministry generates such intense conflict with his opponents, the scribes. Mark 1:21-28 is not only the first miracle of Jesus' ministry in Mark, but it is the portal through which we pass in order to understand the character of his public work.
Elements of Structure
Mark 1:21-28 contain a gem placed in a setting. The gem is the exorcism itself, 1:23-26, and the setting is the generalized conflict setting in which the precious stone is placed, 1:21-22 and 1:27-28. Structurally, the passage appears as follows:
A. setting (Capernahum), teaching and conflict
A . setting (Galilee), teaching and conflict
Notice that both 1:21-22 and 1:27-28 mention teaching, authority and conflict. In 1:22, Jesus is said to teach with authority and not like the scribes, a dig at the ineffective teaching of the scribes. After the exorcism, Jesus' new teaching is associated with authority, a dig at the impotence of the demons. By implication, the scribes and demons are grouped together in opposition to Jesus.
Message and Interpretation of the Text
In 1:21, Mark sketches the setting for this momentous event. The place is Capernahum; more importantly it is the synagogue, and the time is the sabbath. The sabbath was considered sacred time. Since the exile, the sabbath had occupied a special place in the life of Israel. Maybe Israel had lost the temple, but the sabbath was portable. It could be celebrated wherever the people gathered, even by the waters of Babylon. The synagogue was also sacred space, not like the temple was, but sacred because set aside for the sabbath and the study of Torah.
This is why the scribes were so important. They controlled the reading of Torah, and their readings prescribed and proscribed behavior based on Torah. They had power to control people's behavior and to define their place in the world. This was the authority of the scribes, and their institutional power base and base of operations was the synagogue.
Jesus "came into" this synagogue at a propitious moment, and what did he find? The sacred scrolls at the heart of a sabbath study? No. He found the demonic at the heart of the synagogue.
Mark 1:23-26 describe Jesus' conflict with the demonic at the heart of sacred time and space. In the space that was supposed to be clean, Jesus met a man with "an unclean spirit." The demoniac is aggressive and insulting. "What have you got to do with us," they cry out. It is an insult, something like "what are you doing here. You don't belong." The source of the insult is then picked up in Jesus' name, "you the Nazarene" that is, you from the sticks, hicksville (1:24).
But the aggression gives way to fear, presumably when Jesus fails to respond to their attack. This may be an indication of the false bravado of evil. So the demon tries another trick, gaining control over Jesus by invoking his name. You, "Holy One of God," have you come to do us in? (1:24) It was axiomatic in the ancient world that to know someone's name was to have control over them. This is why the people of Israel never spoke the name of God. The demons are not so reluctant.
Jesus has heard enough, so he responds with a rebuke, "shut up and come out of the man." The translation says, "be silent," but the expression is much stronger. It is the same word Jesus uses later to "shut up" the storm on the sea (4:39, where it is translated, "be still"). Since the unclean spirit's most notable trait has been its saucy mouth, Jesus' command to silence puts an end to its strategy of intimidation. All the demon can do is "cry out with a loud voice" and leave the man. As Jesus "comes into" the synagogue, so the demon "goes out" of the man (1:21, 25, 26).
The verbs used to describe the power of the scribes were the ability to "bind" and to "loose," that is, to bind people to a reading of Torah or to loose them from it. Similarly, the demons have the power to bind, to bind the lives of those they possess and oppress. Jesus liberates the man by banishing the demon. Since the spirit was unclean, Jesus also restores true purity to the man's life.
All of this is a challenge to the political system of which the synagogue is a part, and Jesus reveals the true form of "loosing" (we would say liberating) human beings from the powers that hold them in oppression. By paralleling the demon with the scribes in this story, Mark reminds us that evil usually works in collusion with collaborators closer at hand. The power structure of the synagogue actually helped the demons "bind" those who belonged to it. So Jesus' exorcism of the demons challenges the corrupt powers that be in the synagogue.
William R. Herzog II Divinity School of Rochester Rochester, NY