Year B: Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Teaching with Authority

Mark 1: 21-28

Then they came to Capernaum, and on the Sabbath he entered the synagogue and taught. The people were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes. In their synagogue was a man with an unclean spirit; he cried out, “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!” Jesus rebuked him and said, “Quiet! Come out of him!” 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.” His fame spread everywhere throughout the whole region of Galilee.

 Discussion Questions: 

  1.   Do you believe that Jesus’ way is the true authority of your life? In what specific ways do you respond to Jesus’ teaching authority?
  2.   The unclean spirit represents whatever forces dominate people inside and make them less free for God. How have you experienced this domination within yourself? How do you recognize and respond to it?
  3. Jesus is a liberator, the Holy One who overcomes what is contrary to God. Do you believe He can do this in your life when you pray ‘Deliver us from evil’?  Do you have an example of being delivered?
  4. In the Gospels Jesus crosses many well-established faith boundaries, in this passage the boundary of clean and unclean. When have you crossed a closely held personal or religious boundary in service of someone else?

 Biblical Context

Sr. Mary M. McGlone CSJ
Mark 1:21-28

When we read the Gospel of Mark with fresh eyes, we see how Mark is not only fast-paced but tries to communicate the excitement and amazement people felt as they encountered Jesus. This infers that Jesus himself exhibited great excitement about the message he was communicating. The selection we hear today focuses on the question of just who Jesus of Nazareth is, or as the unclean spirit asked, “What have you to do with us?”

First of all, Jesus was a reverent Jew who went to the synagogue in Capernaum where he had taken up residence. Capernaum was a rather prosperous city of around 10,000 people. Situated on a trade route, it was also blessedly distant from Herod’s administrative capital of Tiberius. 

The two ideas that Mark emphasizes in this passage are that Jesus was a teacher and that he exercised authority. If we ask what it was that Jesus taught, Mark comes up quite short on prose. Until now and for some time to come we will hear only 19 words of Jesus’ teaching: “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). The rest of what Jesus says between the beginning of the Gospel and Chapter 2, Verse 19 is dialogue with disciples, demons and people in need of healing. 

That paucity of verbal content makes it all the more striking that the people would be so impressed with Jesus’ teaching. Mark tells us that the people saw Jesus’ authority in distinct contrast to that of the scribes. The scribes were key religious authorities. They were biblical exegetes and could make binding interpretations of the law. Many of them were Pharisees and they had earned their stripes through formal study and teaching. Jesus had none of that pedigree. 

According to Mark, Jesus’ authority came from the simple fact that his word was borne out in deed. That’s what we see in the expulsion of the unclean spirit. He preached about the kingdom of God and his word made it appear. His word was like the divine word of Genesis, creating the very reality of which he spoke. 

As Mark weaves his Gospel message, he shows that the people who saw Jesus were amazed and questioning one another. They saw his authority but didn’t know what to make of it. At the same time, the unclean spirit, a representative of the demonic world, knew right away what Jesus was all about. The question “Have you come to destroy us?” suggests what the next phrase makes explicit: The demons recognized that Jesus had been sent by God and their power was impotent against him. It would take the disciples a little longer to answer the question of what Jesus meant for them. 

 “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” Mark puts this question before every reader of the Gospel. He invites us to journey with him through the rest of the story to learn just what it means that Jesus’ word and deed brought the time of fulfillment. 

 Recognizing the Stranger Within

Fr. Michael K. Marsh

There’s a man with an unclean spirit “in their synagogue.” He’s not unique among them or us. He’s representative and he speaks not just for himself but also for and as one of them. What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us” (emphasis added)? The people in the synagogue do not tell him to be quiet, to sit down, or to get out. They seem pretty happy to let him speak for them because he is one of them and they are him.

He’s become so familiar and accepted in their lives and community and so much a part of who they are that they neither react to nor are they affected by him. He’s not the unusual or strange thing about that day. Who is? Who is the unusual and strange one that day? Jesus. Jesus is the one that astounds them and seems so different from what they’ve seen or heard before.

They are so lost to themselves that the good news of Jesus becomes strange and unusual. “What is this?” they ask, “A new teaching – with authority!” I wonder if that happens to us too. I wonder if sometimes we become so lost to ourselves, so self-alienated, so self-estranged, that the good news sounds strange and a bit crazy to us.

“You want me to love my enemies? I can’t do that. Don’t you know what they’ve done?” “I should forgive how many times, Jesus? Isn’t seven more than enough? Didn’t you hear what she said, what he did? They never change.” “Those who live by the sword will die by the sword? Jesus, don’t you understand that might makes right and peace is gained by superior firepower?” “I’ve never killed anyone but now you’re telling me I shouldn’t even get angry?” “And it’s not enough that I’ve not had an affair? I shouldn’t even look and enjoy some thoughts?” “The kingdom is within? No, that’s not how it works here. What about my accounts, my successes and reputation, proving myself, and all those things I’ve worked so hard to get?” 

It seems the more we look at our life and world the stranger the good news sounds. And I’ve come to realize that’s more a statement about having an unclean spirit than it is about the gospel of Christ. It’s a symptom of our self-alienation.

The great tragedy of this alienation, this self-estrangement, is that

  • We tend to let the most familiar and craziest voices among us speak for us.
  • We’re no longer surprised when the demonic shows ups. I am talking about the attitudes that deny human dignity, the powers that destroy life, the self-interest and greed that refuse to see a common and interdependent life. We may not like it but we’re not too surprised at what’s on the news. Are we really that surprised when there is another terrorist bombing, another mass shooting, another scandal?
  • We let those outer voices, whether it’s CNN, Fox, a parent, our spouse, a friend, a priest, have greater influence in our lives than that deep inner voice of truth and we lose just a bit more of ourselves.
  • We forget that what is true, good, and beautiful are neither objects outside of us nor goals to be achieved, but realities within us to be recognized.

In those times of self-alienation we need someone, a different voice, to call us back to ourselves. We need a new recognition of the ways in which our life has become fragmented. That’s what Jesus is doing in the synagogue in Capernaum today. He is calling them back to themselves. The first thing they want to know is what Jesus has to do with them. He’s the stranger. “Have you come to destroy us?” And I think the answer is yes. He comes to destroy everything that is not truly us. He comes to destroy the false voices in our lives. He comes to destroy the powers that diminish and deny the fullness of life and human dignity. He comes to destroy our false identities. Notice, however, that he does not exclude or reject the man with the unclean spirit. He clarifies for him that the unclean spirit is not his truest spirit. It is not a spirit of life. Jesus calls this man back to himself. 

And it is in that moment of self-recognition that the man with the unclean spirit also recognizes Jesus. “I know who you are,” he says, “the Holy One of God.” That’s something for us to hang on to. Even in the midst of our self-estrangement there is still something within us that knows and can recognize the Holy One. No matter how lost we are to ourselves the ability to recognize the Holy One remains. The reason we can is because the Holy One has never left us. The Holy One is within us. The Holy One is us. 

Maybe the recognition of who Jesus calls us back to be is what saves our life. Maybe that’s the antidote to the ways in which we have become alienated from ourselves. It means recognizing the truth and the untruth about our lives, the beauty of our life as well as the disfigurements, the places that are whole and the places that are broken. We’ve all got them. 

As much as we may want to deny or run from those things, the recognition of those things is also the place of healing and wholeness, a place from which new life born, a place that gives rise to new hope. It’s a place in which we can catch a glimpse of our truest and best self

That means recognition has to become for us an intentional spiritual practice. We must look critically at our lives, reflect deeply on who have become and the shape of our life, wrestle with difficult questions, and search within. It also means that we have to let go of the idea that the one with an unclean spirit is someone apart from and outside our lives. 

As easy and tempting as it is to ignore or cover up our self-alienation, it’s even easier and more tempting to project it onto and blame someone else. President Trump is the man with the unclean spirit. He’s to blame. The biased media are the ones with the unclean spirit. It’s their fault. Or maybe it’s my boss, my spouse, the troublemaker in life. Or maybe the ones with the unclean spirit are the immigrants, the proponents of the wall, the police, the Black Live Matter, Islam…. The list could go on and on. 

To go down that road is to live more deeply into my own self-exile. And I’ve known since I was five years old I do not like that place. That’s not how I want to live or who I want to be. I don’t think you like it or want it for your life any more than I do. I want something more, something different, for my life and I think you do too. 

What’s the recognition for us? In what ways are we lost to ourselves? What’s broken? How are we an alien to our own life or a stranger in our own skin? 

However, we might answer those questions, whatever our self-alienation might be, Jesus enters the synagogue of our life and calls us back to ourselves. He will not run from or avoid our self-alienation and the many ways we’ve become estranged from ourselves. He stands with us in the midst of it, inviting us into recognition. He clarifies the truth about who we are. And he does it over and over. It might take years of recognition, but the promise of Christ holds true. One day we will look at ourselves and say, “I know you. You’re the holy one of God.”