Jesus casts out a demon

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany 2009

Mark 1:21-28

Marian Free

In the name of God who spoke and all things came into being. Amen.

We are only 21 verses into Mark’s gospel and already the writer has covered the Baptist’s role and announcement, Jesus’ baptism and temptation, the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and the call of the first disciples. By contrast, Matthew at the same point has just concluded Jesus’ genealogy and beginning the story of his birth. At this point in Luke’s gospel, we are still caught up in the story of the conception of John the Baptist.

Mark’s style is spare and his gospel has a sense of purpose and of urgency. He proceeds almost at once to Jesus’ identity and purpose. So John identifies Jesus as the stronger one, at his baptism Jesus is identified as the Son of God, in the desert he withstands Satan and Jesus begins his ministry by proclaiming the reign of God. His role becomes evident in the next few chapters. His proclamation of the reign of God confronts the forces which are in opposition to God and illustrates his intention to restore order and wholeness to God’s creation. He will challenge the forces of disorder, chaos, sin and disobedience which have made serious inroads into God’s rule. (There is no suggestion that these forces are in way a threat to God’s power, just that they have disrupted the harmony of creation.) Jesus’ role is to restore order and harmony and this is illustrated initially through the accounts of healing and the casting out of unclean spirits which show Jesus’ concern with wholeness and restoration and the authority which he has been given to bring this about.

The gospel of Mark was intended to be read (or rather heard) as a whole as were other documents of his time. Listeners would have been alert to patterns and repetitions which the writer used as an aid to their memory. They would have heard the themes were developed and seen where the author lay his emphasis. In Mark’s gospel, they would have followed the story as it built to a climax in the middle and grasped the tension as the second half moved towards the crucifixion.

Because we do not read or hear the gospel in one sitting, we miss out on the patterns which are developed and we are often unaware of the repetitions that help to make and reinforce the point which the author is trying to make. We are not used to listening for of looking for the same and we are so used to having the story told piecemeal that we find it very difficult to put it all together. Reading the stories in isolation means that we don’t see how they build on each other. For example, today’s gospel falls into a larger pattern which includes the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law which is sandwiched between two accounts of the casting out of demons. This pattern of sandwiching accounts between one or more similar stories is extended as far as the third chapter.

The pattern which extends from 1:16 to 3:21 includes two similar stories which are reversed and repeated sandwiching a third story in between. This section of the gospel is bracketed by 2 different accounts of the calling of disciples – the calling of 4 and the calling of the twelve. Inside these brackets we have two accounts of cures involving conflict the first includes a series of cures, the last of which involves conflict and the second a series of conflicts ending with a cure – a repetition but with a reversal of emphasis. Sandwiched in the middle is the calling of Levi (3:13-17). The effect of these patterns is to reinforce the point the author is trying to make – Jesus has authority to restore order to the world to bring wholeness to the sick and to cast out what has the power to destroy. This same authority draws people to leave everything and follow him, but it also leads to conflict with those who believe themselves to be in authority.

Though told in Mark’s typical style and without elaboration, the description of the casting out of an unclean spirit is full of detail – we learn that Jesus’ teaches with authority and is recognised by unclean spirits. The spirit is silenced by Jesus and Jesus’ reputation spreads. A number of themes introduced here are repeated in the remainder of this section – the Sabbath, healing (cleansing), recognition by demons, secrecy, astonishment or amazement on the part of the observers and the spreading of Jesus’ reputation.

The presence of the unclean spirit is evidence of the brokenness of the world. The disorder in God’s creation is represented by disease, possession or disability. To the Hebrew mind anything that was imperfect, out of order or incomplete was unfit for communion with God. The technical term for this was uncleanness. A person who was “unclean” was not able to enter the Temple, was out of relationship with God.

It is characteristic of demons that they recognise their opposition. The evil spirits know instinctively that Jesus role is to challenge their dominion and to show that God is stronger. Jesus’ rebuke is authoritative and will brook no denial. By a simple command he is able to exorcise the demon and free the man from possession and restoring his relationship with God and demonstrating Jesus’ authority. Strangely, Jesus demands silence of the unclean spirit. He will not allow the unclean spirit to identify and define him. Jesus wants to avoid any misunderstanding of his role. He wants to preserve his own sense of vocation, to be authenticated by what he says and does, not by what another says of him. He wants too to avoid a misunderstanding of his role – that he is mission is militaristic or political. It is God’s role to define who and what he is.

Mark is intent on establishing Jesus as the one who will restore God’s creative activity and challenge the power of forces which disrupt it. That the events occur on the Sabbath reinforces Mark’s point that Jesus’ role is that of returning order and unity to creation. At the same time, the narrative provides an opportunity to establish Jesus’ authority and the power of Jesus’ word.

At the very beginning of his gospel then, Mark has established that Jesus is the Son of God – his identity announced from heaven is now shouted by a spirit. He is also identified as the stronger one who not only withstands Satan’s attacks, but who by a word exhibits power over the unclean spirit. Jesus’ word, his teaching with authority, is clearly displayed – the power of Jesus’ word leads people to leave their occupation and follow him. Jesus’ word is shown to have more authority than that of the scribes. The spirits depart at his word and his word is spread throughout Galilee.

So we see, the story of the expulsion of the unclean spirit is not primarily the account of a miracle, but a demonstration of Jesus’ authority and of the power of his word. The restoration of the man with the evil spirit is a sign of the restoration of the whole of creation which has been marred by human weakness and disobedience, a restoration that will be brought about by this man Jesus who has been identified as the Son of God

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