Let the Scriptures Speak
Teaching With Authority
The unclean spirit convulsed him and with a loud cry came out of him.
All were amazed and asked one another, 'What is this?
A new teaching with authority. He commands even
the unclean spirits and they obey him (Mark 1:26-27)
This dramatic healing of the demoniac in the Capernaum synagogue is the first action that Mark narrates after the calling of the first disciples. Each evangelist chooses a different deed of Jesus with which to begin the story of his public life—Matthew begins with the Sermon on the Mount, Luke with the reading of Isaiah in Nazareth, and here we see Mark beginning the story of Jesus' public activity with this deliverance of a man possessed by an unclean spirit. And his presentation of the event is nearly as startling and puzzling as the original experience must have been for those present that evening in the synagogue. A word of command is followed by convulsion and a scream, resulting in complete liberation. Curiously, the crowd murmurs, “What is this? A new teaching with authority!” They have just witnessed a powerful example of therapy, and they call it pedagogy. What's more, though they refer to teaching, the account has mentioned not a word of Jesus' teaching.
Precisely what connection does Mark want us to make between teaching and deliverance from demonic power? Up to this point in Mark's Gospel, all that we have heard about the content of Jesus' teaching is something Mark calls “proclaiming the gospel of God.” He summarizes this gospel in an announcement and a command: “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). But this brief summary is quite enough.
Let us be encouraged that such weakness is an opening for God's healing and liberating power. One thing is crystal clear. What Jesus has to communicate is not simply a new idea, an alternative lifestyle that might catch the fancy of a few people. It is nothing less than the announcement of the coming of God in power to rescue God's people (that is what “Gospel of God” means in the language of Isaiah) and a demonstration of that announcement. To say that the “kingdom of God” is at hand is to draw upon the apocalyptic world view and to say that God is about to manifest divine kingship by rescuing God's people from whatever oppresses them.
The dramatic healing of the demoniac by an authoritative word is a demonstration of God's reign in their midst. And the people recognize it as such. This rescue from evil power is indeed new teaching, sustained by an authority that enacts what it claims: God's kingly power is at hand to rescue.
This powerful episode puts in bold relief the truth that the gospel we respond to in faith is not simply a new set of ideas but a truth that is meant to transform our lives. And it is that transformation which mediates God's power to deal with the evil in the world. That seems to be the meaning of a later passage, Mark 3:20-35, where the debate about the source of Jesus' power over evil (is it from God or from Beelzebub?) is framed by episodes that focus on the true family of Jesus. The power of the kingdom of God over the kingdom of Satan is achieved by the creation of a new human family made up of everyone who does the will of God. A community of converted people is God's secret weapon against the power of evil in the world.
When we find ourselves depressed and oppressed by the evil we detect in others, perhaps we best hear the authoritative teaching of Jesus when we hear it as a call to our own further conversion. If that seems to touch us where we are weakest, let us be encouraged that such weakness is an opening for God's healing and liberating power. As Paul said, “I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me” (2 Cor 12:9)
Dennis Hamm, SJ
**From Saint Louis University