Mark 1:21–28: Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

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Jesus’s triumphs in teaching and exorcising in Capernaum make him a superstar as the crowds marvel not just at his power but his authority, so unlike the scribes. One might get the impression the scribes were ineffective, staid conservatives and Jesus a radical who got things done. And so, crucial for understanding the passage are the subtleties of Jesus’s relationship to Judaism.

Christianity, and especially Catholicism, is Judaism plus Jesus. Though nineteenth-century Germanic scholarship was embarrassed by Jesus’s Judaism and sectors of early-twentieth-century scholarship tried to erase it,[1] Jesus was a Jew, inheriting the Scriptures, traditions, and culture of Judaism. Jesus as Christ and Son of God, then, becomes  the authoritative interpreter of the legacy of Judaism for the Church. Some things, like the dietary laws that kept Israel separate from the nations, are inappropriate for the Church, in which Jewish and Gentile believers are to be one.[2] Other things, such as laws pertaining to sacrifices, are fulfilled in Jesus’s crucifixion and Eucharist. Moral things, especially regarding sexual morality, are kept and even interiorized and intensified.[3]

Catholicism in particular emphasizes continuity from the Old Testament through Jesus into the Church. For instance, the exodus grounds the feasts of Passover and Unleavened Bread, which become the framework for Jesus’s Last Supper and crucifixion, which in turn become the Eucharist that the  Church celebrates as its unbloody sacrifice. And, of course, Catholic continuity with Judaism and the Old Testament is seen in the sacrifice of the Eucharist celebrated by an all-male priesthood wearing vestments in Churches reflecting the Old Testament temples. Catholicism is weird in the modern world precisely because it’s rooted in the Scriptures and traditions of Israel, thanks to Jesus the Jew, the Christ and Son of God.

The Gospel of Mark is often thought to have been written for Gentiles, but even if that’s true (and there is no consensus nowadays on the original audiences of the Gospels), Mark’s story sets itself deeply in Judaism. It begins by telling readers it’s about Jesus the Christ (1:1) and then provides two quotes straight from Malachi and Isaiah (1:2–3). John appears as the great prophet Elijah fulfilling Jewish apocalyptic expectations (1:4–8). Mark may not be Matthew, but like all the New Testament documents, Mark’s Gospel is thoroughly Jewish.

And so, we must attend to the subtleties of this passage. Jesus doesn’t forsake the synagogue, but rather attends it and teaches there (1:21). But, as Christ and Son of God, his teaching is authoritative (1:22). This indicates no chasm here between Jesus and Judaism. Rather, the point is that Jesus is not merely an inspired prophet or skilled interpreter like the scribes (religious experts trained in interpreting the law), but rather, the One with ultimate authority over the law, demons, and (once we get to miracles proper) even nature, given his identity.

When Jesus teaches publicly, it’s associated with his unique authority and expressed in exorcism. On one hand, the exorcisms buttress his divine authority. On the other hand, they display the liberating nature of Jesus’s teaching: in both word and deed, Jesus frees people held hostage from captivity to sin, death, hell, and the devil. Teaching and exorcism both flow from his divine authority.

Here, the exorcisms also reveal his identity, the ultimate ground of his authority. In the exorcism in the synagogue (1:23–26), the demon freaks out, blowing an unholy gasket: “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” (1:24). The title the demon speaks is equivalent to “Son of God,” and so, here again, we find the theme of secrecy. Knowledge of the ultimate truth about Jesus requires divine Revelation. Demons and angels have such knowledge, as do readers of Mark’s Gospel (which is after all divine Revelation), but characters in the story do not.

Jesus commands the demon to be silent (1:25) for the usual reasons. First, Mark insists that Jesus’s divine sonship be understood in terms of the crucifixion, where the centurion calls Jesus—publicly!—Son of God. Again, a chief concern of Mark’s story is to counter lazy theologies of glory with the rigors of the theology of the cross, and so the only time a human calls Jesus Son of God is at the moment of his death on the Cross. Second, knowing the truth about Jesus requires the sort of persistent faith with which one presses in to Jesus’s presence. Thus, it would not do for Jesus’s identity to be revealed here, now, at this point in the story, lest characters in the story assume one can assent to Jesus’s identity apart from that persistent faith that would carry one even to the Cross.

The crowd reacts with amazement (1:27). In Mark’s Gospel, being “amazed” (or “astonished” or similar) is not a good thing. For instance, the disciples are “amazed” at Jesus’s words regarding the difficulties the rich will have entering the kingdom (10:23–24)—they’re confused. Or again, in 10:32, in the context of the third and final Passion prediction in the discipleship section, those with Jesus on the way to Jerusalem are not only “amazed” but also “afraid.” And again, in 16:5, the women are “amazed” when they encounter the young man at the empty tomb who then tells them in 16:6 to not be amazed. The young man’s white robe and position on the “right” side indicate his  representation of the divine perspective, while the amazement the women experience is always a negative marker in Mark’s Gospel.

Amazement, then, in Mark’s Gospel, whichever Greek word is employed,  is not positive but, at best, neutral. It indicates surprise, perplexity, confusion, and even insanity (as in Mark 3:21). The crowd in 1:27 is certainly impressed after a fashion, but ultimately, lacking understanding. Further, they ask a question: “What is this?” In Mark’s Gospel, asking questions (save Jesus’s own questions to others) indicates lack of understanding. Consider the disciples in 4:41: “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” Or again, the women in 16:3: “Who will roll away the stone for us?”

The crowd, then, is not so much responding with faith to Jesus’s mighty works as they are marveling at the spectacle. The question, then, is whether any of them will press in beyond the borders of the theater of these signs and wonders and, through seeking Jesus in faith, come to understand who he is (the Christ and Son of God) and what he is about (liberating creation by bringing the kingdom of God’s reign, ultimately through his death and Resurrection). This too, in fact, involves the Markan opposition of the theology of glory to the theology of the Cross. Will the crowds, and we, understand Jesus Christ as a wonder-working superstar, the route taken by so much American Christianity, so allergic to suffering, or will they, and we, understand him as the suffering, crucified Son of God?

The answer is not given in the passage, which simply raises the question for the reader. And so, Jesus’s fame spreads throughout Galilee (1:28) as he continues his tour.

[1] See Susanna Heschel, The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010).

[2] See, for instance, Matt 28:16–20 and Eph 2:11–22.

[3] See, for instance, Matt 19:3–9, in which Jesus adverts to Gen 1 and 2 in denying divorce. Similarly, in Acts 15, the early Church adopts four basic rules for Gentiles who wish to be Christians, rules rooted in the Old Testament as rules for those who wish to sojourn in Israel. Each has to do with either theology or anthropology, or both—that is, fundamental truths about God and man. And so, idolatry is forbidden, as is meat from strangled animals and “blood,” all of which probably have to do with pagan sacrifice. The injunction to refrain from “sexual immorality,” porneia, in Acts 15 probably involves the maintenance of Levitical sexual ethics concerning not only the forbidden degrees of consanguinity but also the Levitical prescriptions regarding the normativity of heterosexual marriage, for they go to anthropology, the truth of the human person. As Church history shows, much of the Old Testament retains direct relevance to Christians.

[4] Mark employs three different Greek words in different passages, thambeō (Mark 1:27; 10:24; 10:32), to be astounded or amazed; existēmi (Mark 2:12; 3:21; 5:42; 6:51), to be confused, astounded, amazed, even to lose one’s mind or senses; and thaumazō (Mark 5:20; 6:6; 15:5; 15:44), to be extraordinarily disturbed, amazed, or astounded, or to marvel or wonder. See the entries in Walter Bauer, F. W. Danker, W. F. Arndt, and F. W. Gingrich, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3d ed. [BDAG] (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999).

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