This week’s passage from Mark brought dark images and deep questions to Faith in Real Life. Jesus casts out demons from a man in the synagogue, and it is said that he teaches with an authority that people hadn’t encountered before. What is the source of authority, and how might it differ from the way we commonly interpret the term’s meaning? How do we understand the ‘demon’ references in today’s context? Vernon tackles these questions and more in this week’s blog post.
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.
This text raises a variety of interesting questions. What is the nature of authority and what is distinctive about Jesus’ authority? How are demons relevant in the text and are there real life correlates? And finally, what are the implications for us as we interact with today’s world? I will try to at least touch upon each of these topics.
In the first twenty verses of the first chapter, Jesus is prophesied about and recognized by John the Baptist, Jesus is baptised and looked upon with favor by God, he is driven into the wilderness to clarify his calling and he emerges to begin his ministry. He begins to interpret scripture, proclaims the good news and begins to gather his disciples. That is a lot of ground to cover—the urgency is impossible to miss.
Now in these verses, Jesus’ story advances another step. Jesus’ authority is being established. It was common practise in the first century for different teachers and interpreters to present their views in the synagogue. There, new ideas were disputed, refined and measured against the tradition. A good relationship with God was based upon understanding and obedience. Usually the authorities of the synagogue, the scribes and the pharisees, would be the last word. But Jesus was seen as having a different authority—- Jesus ‘taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.’
It is a polite way to say that just because you are ordained and have a good education does not mean you know what you are talking about. (I can personally attest to this.) Neither does position and education correlate very well with practising what we preach.
The authority of the scribes was based upon their education and their position. Then, as today, two of the most common criterion for authority were positional and hierarchical. Who is bigger, who has the most education, who has the most credentials, etc. Typically, we defer to parents, teachers, police, physicians, experts, etc. In a world of exploding knowledge, we cannot learn enough to be knowledgeable much less expert in all fields. So we count on the people who have the experience and who have gained the knowledge to direct our thinking. This was the authority of the scribes.
But there are risks to such an approach. Sometimes we distrust the motive of the expert, sometimes there are duelling experts, and sometimes our personal biases are contradicted. When any of these happen, it is much harder to differentiate who speaks the ‘truth’ and who should have authority. This is a constant and recurring struggle in religious interpretation, political debate and even scientific discourse.
I remember growing up there was a huge controversy surrounding the link between smoking and cancer. There were all kinds of warnings but there were also many doubts about the legitimacy of the connection between smoking and health. And then there were anecdotal ‘proofs’. My uncle smoked for forty years and he never got cancer. Or the reverse, my brother never smoked a day in his life and he had lung cancer before he was forty. We are enduring parallel controversies today around the validity of global warming. Who has authority? Who do we trust?
Mark simply states that Jesus spoke with a different authority and “At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.” There was something beyond erudition and position that carried weight. There was something beyond rational disputation that connected deeply with people. It turns out that the experience of God includes knowledge but it does not depend upon knowledge. We can know the rules and techniques of tennis but that doesn’t mean we are able to actually play. We can be philosophically sophisticated about loving but that does not mean we are very good at the practise of love.
When the scribes spoke of love and what it means to be in relationship with God,they spoke from their understanding. But when Jesus spoke of the same things, his living and interactions with people reflected his heart.
In general, when people speak out of their heads, people argue. When people speak out of their hearts, people listen.
I would suggest that the authority Jesus possessed was that Jesus didn’t just talk about love and inclusion, it was how he treated people. What Jesus said and how he lived matched. Jesus lived and taught that love is incarnational. Love speaks to the whole person and it speaks to every person. It is not measured by obedience or knowledge. It is revealed in kindness and regard for ourselves and others. Jesus’ love extended to all people. So, how are demons relevant in the text and are there real life correlates?
In our day, we don’t talk much about unclean spirits or demons. Our rational minds and our ethos of self sufficiency do not want to recognize that there are forces in our lives that we cannot manage or control. But those forces are real and we are wise to recognize them. We cannot manage them on our own. I see people all of the time who try to ‘white knuckle it’. They believe their predicaments are a lack of willpower and that with enough effort, they can prevail. In theological terms, it is a form of salvation by works. That is a battle we cannot win.
I do not have images of gargoyles or horned creatures but they are vivid ways to present the ‘realness’ of these struggles. I take very seriously how hard it is to make life choices that are good for me and my relationships. It is not for lack of knowing. In ordinary life, I know better eating is good for me but if you put cookies in front me, I’m looking at supper. As Paul put it in Romans 7: “21 So I find that, as a rule, when I want to do what is good, evil is right there with me. 22 I gladly agree with the Law on the inside, 23 but I see a different law at work in my body. It wages a war against the law of my mind and takes me prisoner with the law of sin that is in my body.”
Everyone of us has an inner voice that diminishes us. It says ‘you can’t do that, it is too much for you, you don’t measure up—or a voice that entitles us—you deserve, everybody else does it, nobody will know.’ As far as I can tell this is a universal struggle and it matters little if you call it demon possession or poor impulse control. The forces and the struggle are real. These voices are powerful and must be fought—because they diminish self and others. They are antithetical to love and self regard. They are real but they are not true. Biblically these are unclean spirits. They lead us away from love.
In real life, we are called to live and love with the authority of Jesus. We must turn towards God’s love and we must live our lives incarnately. It is not enough to talk about love and inclusion. We must live it. We will often fail but we have a direction. Accepting the authority of Jesus gives us resources beyond our self sufficiency. When Jesus speaks with authority that we are loved, we can risk failure and we do not need to feel entitled to feel important. When that happens, the lies of the demons are exposed. They lose their power to govern us.
This is not a one and done battle. It lasts a lifetime but we fight our battles in the promise that love casts out fear. The war is won. We gather as a community to remember that love is the authority that matters. We scatter to live that love in the world.
When we go out into the world, remember Jesus’ authority. Follow him. He loves you. We may be very inept and inadequate vessels but following him, we receive and we offer something new——not the authority of knowing but the authority of kindness, regard and love. People will listen to that! Let it be so.