"Get Out of Here, Jesus!" Bible Study on Mark 1:21-28
January 28, 2021, 11:57 AM

Dear Members & Friends:

I invite you to read the following passage from Mark 1:21-28 (Common English Bible).

21 Jesus and his followers went into Capernaum. Immediately on the Sabbath Jesus entered the synagogue and started teaching. 22 The people were amazed by his teaching, for he was teaching them with authority, not like the legal experts.23 Suddenly, there in the synagogue, a person with an evil spirit screamed, 24 “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are. You are the holy one from God.”

25 “Silence!” Jesus said, speaking harshly to the demon. “Come out of him!” 26 The unclean spirit shook him and screamed, then it came out.

27 Everyone was shaken and questioned among themselves, “What’s this? A new teaching with authority! He even commands unclean spirits and they obey him!” 28 Right away the news about him spread throughout the entire region of Galilee.

United Church of Christ pastor and theologian, Cheryl Lindsay, opens her comments on Mark 1:21-28 with the following question:  "Where do you go for a miracle?"  Perhaps to a holy place like Lourdes or Montreal's L'Oratoire St. Joseph?!  But we would probably not expect to find deliverance from an evil spirit in the middle of a Jewish Sabbath Service.  And yet, both Lindsay and Will Willimon note that what makes this miracle of deliverance unusual is its setting.  The synagogue is a place for prayer and for the reading and exposition of scripture.  Eckard J. Schnabel tells us that the synagogues held a prominent role in the community and were central to "communal life: they functioned as courts and places for political discussions, storage of archives, education of children, public reading and teaching of Torah and prayer."

Mark 1:21-28 is a fast moving drama in two acts.  In Act I (Mark 1:21-22), Rabbi Jesus enters the synagogue and teaches with such authority that those gathered are astonished.  But what was so astonishing?  The authority that the audience recognizes probably consisted in the fact that Jesus did not explain the scriptures with references to other rabbis: he expounded the will of God with resolute immediacy. The teachers of the Law (scribes) were professional experts in the Mosaic Law who studied, explained and applied the Law to specific situations.  The worshippers gathered for Sabbath Service could have been composed of villagers who could not read and had to rely on their religious experts reading and interpreting the Law for them.  In contrast to these Law experts, Jesus, as a Person of the Triune God, would not need to consult any human authority to bring truth to those listening to him.

Mark gives us not one word here about the content of Jesus' teaching.  Mark seems more interested in the effect of the teaching than the content.  In other words, Jesus' teaching is as powerful as his works, which lead us to Act II (Mark 1:23-27).

In Act II, Jesus turns the synagogue into a place of exorcism.  This is significant because the Gospel of Mark demonstrates the power of the mission and ministry of Jesus.  Mark's Gospel is action-oriented, jumping from scene to scene in rapid order.  And the scenes are focused on the unfolding drama of the Kingdom of God breaking in rather than a theological treatise on the significance of the moment.  That's why Mark invites us into the action as silent participants as if we are eavesdropping on the exciting adventures of Jesus of Nazareth.  The point of Act II is that the teaching is demonstrated through an act of Jesus' power coming in the midst of a holy place. 

In another gospel (Luke 4:16-18), Jesus preaches at the Nazareth synagogue: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  God has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free."  The purpose of the synagogue, like other houses of worship, was to be a place that assembles the community for purpose (mission), nurture and formation (teaching), and healing (making people whole).  The synagogue had disconnected from its mission, as so much of Christianity today -- caught up with obeying all kinds of rules and traditions instead of loving people no matter what condition we find them in.  We bemoan the loss of people attending our Services (of course, right now we are in the middle of a pandemic) when the loss of people has happened over time because maybe the Church is not attending to her mission.

"What a lovely day for an exorcism, don't you agree?" said the demon-possessed character of young Reagan O'Neal as she meets Fr. Charis for the first time in the film The Exorcist.  And so, an unexpected character is introduced into our gospel drama in Mark 1:21-28 -- "a person with an evil (unclean) spirit."  Aa Schnabel explains, "Normally people stay away from impurity, uncleanness or dirt, whether literal, moral, or ritual.  The question, 'What do you want with us?' is an Old Testament idiom, a formula of disassociation, meaning 'go way and leave me alone,'" as if to say, "Get out of here, Jesus!"  When a holy place, such as a church, isn't carrying out its mission to love all people, then it's as if the Church (all churches) is saying, "Don't bother me, Jesus."

Jesus does not abandon the demoniac as he commands the unclean spirit, "Silence! . . . Come out of him!" (Mark 1:25).  Of course, the action of exorcism does not happen without opposition.  The evil spirit attempts to exert its control over the situation by showing their knowledge of Jesus' name, hometown, and true identity: "What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?  Have you come to destroy us?  I know who you are.  You are the holy one from God" (Mark 1:24).  Following Jesus' commands, the evil spirit is exercised.  The man is healed.  A miracle takes place.  The Realm of God is on earth.

This event takes place in a holy place -- a synagogue.  But it also takes place in another holy place -- within the human body and spirit (heart).  What has been profaned by evil has been made righteous (holy and whole) by Emmanuel -- God-with-us.  And, in this particular instance we see healing take place alongside teaching.  After Jesus astounds us with his teaching, he provides an even greater demonstration of his authority through this miraculous act of deliverance.  What if our worship preparation included making space for miracles to take place, acknowledging that there are moments of epiphany that only God has the power to reveal?  What if our ministry and mission were framed in the expectation of the miraculous?

Lindsay, Willimon, and N.T. Wright note that Jesus' teaching and the accompanying act of deliverance have political overtones and ramifications.  Lindsay frames it in terms of ". . . a whole segment of the population who have been possessed by deliberate misinformation, hostility to science, and white nationalism." 

Willimon says that the power that Jesus brings, even when it is power used for good, is still resisted by those who observe his power, by observers human and demonic.  As noted above, the evil powers do not give up without a fight.  The powers try to sabotage Jesus' compassionate, creative work.  Later in Mark's Gospel, those satanic powers will even attempt to overthrow Jesus by entering into his inner circle of closest friends (see Mark 8:33).  If politics is about who has power and who uses power, Mark is presenting Jesus in a very "political" way.  When Jesus shows up at the synagogue at Capernaum, suddenly a place of worship becomes a political battleground.  Perhaps there are very few people in mainline Protestant churches who believe in demonic possession in the literal sense of the word, possession.  After all, we have the medical sciences to explain epilepsy, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia, all conditions which might have been interpreted as signs of demonic possession in Jesus' day.  However, we live in a politically charged environment where there are often fierce struggles and bitter disagreements about who has power and how power is to be used.

N.T. Wright warns us that, if we are not careful, we will read accounts like Mark 1:21-28 as somehow spiritual, otherworldly rather than read Jesus as Mark presents him -- Jesus has come as a new King to claim a kingdom.  Power is shifting.  God is taking back what belongs to God.  So, there is disruption, shouting, rebuke, and crisis even in the place of worship and holy teaching.

I'm wondering if our current demons might be systemic racism, mobs that perpetrate violence against those with whom they disagree, and hate speech that singles out any group of individuals?

I close with the lyrics of Thomas H. Troeger's hymn, "Silence! Frenzied, Unclean Spirit."

"Silence! Frenzied, unclean spirit," cried God's healing, Holy One.  "Cease your ranting!  Flesh can't bear it.  Flee as night before the sun."  At Christ's voice the demon trembled, from its victim madly rushed, While the crowd that was assembled stood in wonder, stunned and hushed.

Christ, the demons still are thriving in the grey cells of the mind: Tyrant voices, shrill and driving, twisted thoughts that grip and bind, Doubts that stir the heart to panic, fears distorting reason's sight, Guilt that makes our loving frantic, dreams that cloud the soul with fright.

Silence, Christ, the unclean spirit, in our mind and in our heart.  Speak your word that when we hear it all our demons shall depart.  Clear our thought and calm our feeling, still the fractured, warring soul.  By the power of your healing make us faithful, true, and whole.

Blessings & Wholeness,

Pastor Greg Rupright


01-29-2021 at 9:48 PM
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