When we have seen contemporary magicians perform and we expect to be amazed. They do things that make us wonder how in this world that they did what they did. They are famous. Houdini. Copperfield. David Blaine. These men are very familiar to the public. Yet, these magicians didn’t and don’t perform for free and they intended to become a household name.
Speaking of household names, Yeshua the Nazarene, wasn’t exactly one people were praying to God with when Jesus began his ministry in Capernaum. Mark 1:21-39 will introduce to us Jesus the exorcist. Mark thinks it very important that we see Jesus as having a certain kind of power, one that defines Jesus’ mission. C. Myers says that healers and magicians abounded in Hellenistic antiquity, but none of them faced political accusation for their craft. I can’t imagine anything Copperfield or Blaine could do that would draw the hyper negative reaction of politicians, at least off the top of my head. Perhaps, if they were able to manipulate voters decisions we’d begin to see them on a twenty-four-hour news cycle and demonized by one party or another. Imagine a YouTube sensation that came out of somewhere in Montana beginning to ‘magically’ manipulate voters. Wouldn’t the temptation for current political parties be to find ways of immediately quenching any ‘fires’ that were started by such an individual? Of course. Now, maybe we can imagine something similar to Jesus and the scribal authorities in Mark 1:21-39.
So far, Jesus has been portrayed as being apart from the synagogue. We’ve seen him coming all the way from Galilee and go through or around Samaria to get to John in order that he would be baptized. The heavens are torn apart to declare that Jesus is the One who is the Son, the King; assuming this King (Messiah) will be the deliverer, conqueror, and judge, however wide those terms may be interpreted at this point in the story. No sooner than Jesus appears on stage, he disappears into the wilderness to be among the wild beasts and be served by angelic forces, all before returning to Galilee. Jesus then creates a movement in Galilee, calling disciples unto Himself. He is not depicted as having any palpable conflict until he enters the synagogue in Capernaum.
The text says that they (Jesus and the disciples) went into Capernaum and immediately on the Sabbath he (Jesus) entered (εισελθον) the synagogue and was teaching. What was Jesus teaching? Evidently, something new. “And they (everyone in the synagogue including the scribes) were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes.” I’m assuming the scribes would be teaching a perverted version of the Law even though it was common and unchallenged publicly. Maybe it was like listening to politics as usual. The assumed public narrative never got to the heart of the problem. Everyone was conditioned to focus on superficialities that continued to create animosities between regions. A type of Jewish nationalism continued to be bolstered and as a pot of hot water, it was being given more heat. Jesus teaching differed from that of the scribes. He did not teach with the same emphasis and certainly didn’t reinforce the political views of the capital city, Jerusalem. People were astonished at this new teaching.
Mark’s very next statement alerts us to a man in the synagogue that had an unclean spirit. We already know that Jesus will command the spirit to come out of the man. This is typically our only takeaway from this passage, though. It seems that we sort of involuntarily shelve the episode as an ancient mystical event which popularizes Jesus as a magician of sorts. As if this is the first sleight of hand in a long line of tricks to come. What we certainly haven’t been able to do is interpret the event, at least in my experience, convincingly (pardon the pun). The spirit knows something about Jesus of Nazareth, the relatively unknown prophet at this time, that the scribes and the people of the synagogue do not, or perhaps even can’t know at this time. The spirit sees Jesus, not as an upstart magician who has come to entertain, awe, and make a name for himself, but as a prophet (“Holy One of God”) who poses a serious threat. “Have you come to destroy us?” the spirit cries out. Although Jesus will be recognized as a miracle worker, Jesus demonstration of making this unclean spirit silent and making it disappear reveals more than ability. This demonstration reveals Jesus’ mission, and even those who will oppose it, the scribes and those they represent. The political establishment of the day was being threatened by a seemingly audacious young man from “Montana.” Yet, “they were all amazed, so that they questioned among themselves, saying, ‘What is this? A new teaching with authority! He commands the unclean spirits, and they obey . . . him.”
This episode Mark gives us is not filler. It isn’t included to provide us entertainment in order to awe us long enough until he can finally get to his main point of Jesus’ crucifixion. Mark is beginning to build a narrative for us so that we might be able to understand Jesus’ crucifixion! The tone of confrontation was struck when we were told that Jesus was driven out into the wilderness by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan. Mark didn’t provide us with a highly detailed picture of that scenario, unlike Matthew. Yet, Jesus emerges victoriously and begins proclaiming the Gospel in Galilee, saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” What are we supposed to imagine Jesus to be teaching when he entered that synagogue? Exactly! The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand… We are beginning to see that Jesus and his gospel wasn’t exactly welcome everywhere he went. Israel is under Satanic influence and even Jesus’ disciples cannot recognize this. Israel is headed in the wrong direction even though they believe firmly that God is with them.
Israel and the disciples need to learn quite a lot about Jesus. This is obvious to us. The disciples will have plenty of personal experience with Jesus and even they will find themselves dumbfounded by the real mission of Jesus. They, too, will be casting out demons without knowing what’s really taking place. What about us, though, today? What do we think about Jesus now? Was Jesus merely someone who became a prodigious magician, so that crowds could be astonished? Or, might there be demons that surface in our own era when the kingdom of God is taught, asking kingdom teachers, “Have you come to destroy us?” Or, might we be like the scribes in some way, reinforcing the status quo? Maybe we’re the ones who are mere performers attempting to make a name for ourselves, wooing crowds and absorbing glory. Either way, Mark wants us to know the real deal with Jesus and His mission.