Historical Cultural Context
Authority and Honor
Middle Eastern cultures and indeed a large part of the ancient and modern world believe in spirits, good and bad. The West has allowed science and particularly the medical sciences to explain instances of “human beings possessed by spirits” in a different way. This makes the present story difficult for Westerners to accept and appreciate. From a Middle Eastern perspective, the meaning of the story is very plain.
Jesus the Artisan Who Teaches
It is not the unclean spirit and the possessed man that trouble Jesus’ audience. These were common in their world. They are disturbed because Jesus is acting totally out of line with his inherited status. This artisan from Nazareth dares to teach “as one having authority” in the Capernaum synagogue. Who gave him authority to teach?
Jesus the Teacher with Power over Spirits
As the listeners puzzle over Jesus’ behavior, his teaching, and his manner of teaching, a man possessed by an unclean spirit interrupts the setting by shrieking.
Our ancestors in the faith believed that spirits were more powerful than human beings but less powerful than God.
Spirits readily interfered (or intervened) in human life, sometimes benevolently, sometimes capriciously, and sometimes malevolently. They had power to control human behavior.
The spirit who possessed the man in the synagogue is central in this story because he knows Jesus’ identity far better than Jesus’ compatriots do. He knows Jesus is “the Holy one of God.”
But much to the amazement of the people, Jesus is not controlled or cowed by this unclean spirit. Instead, Jesus shows that his power is stronger than that of the spirit. Jesus commands the spirit to come out of the man, and it does!
The people now have an answer to why Jesus teaches “with authority, and not as the scribes.” Clearly, Jesus possesses powers stronger than those of ordinary human beings. Some Greek manuscripts have variant readings of the people’s response to Jesus in Mark 1:27: “What is this? A new teaching? With authority he commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”
Authority is a major problem for Jesus’ contemporaries. No one denies the mighty deeds of power that Jesus performs. What troubles them is the source of his authority. Is it God? (Mark, of course, has already told this to his listeners and readers a number of times.) Or is it the world of the other, lesser gods and spirits?
The people in the synagogue at Capernaum have not yet decided. The fact, however, is very clear. Jesus the artisan from Nazareth has authority and effective power to do what he does. He behaves not shamefully, out of alignment with his status, but rather quite honorably. And this is why Mark concludes by noting: “At once his reputation [honor] began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.”
This final note affects the honor of both Jesus and the healed man. The gossip network proclaims a new honor status for Jesus (teaches with authority; has power over unclean spirits) that contrasts with his status “of Nazareth.” It also restores honor to the man now released from the power of unclean spirits. He can reclaim his rightful place in the community.
The Western tendency to rationalize the ancient understanding of spirits is rooted in the fact that Westerners have much more power over their lives and circumstances than the ancients believed that they for their part had. Today’s reflection invites Westerners to consider how wisely or imprudently they use their power.
John J. Pilch
**From Saint Louis University