Reflections on Mark 1:21-28 Part 1

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"if it is by the finger of God that I cast out the demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you." (Luke 11:20)



Jesus and his disciples are in Capernaum, the home town of Peter, and the scene takes place in the synagogue, on the Sabbath. The Sabbath, meant as a day of rest, is a busy day for Jesus. He not only teaches and heals in the synagogue in this passage but he later heals Simon Peter’s mother-in-law and, after sunset, he heals the crowds that come from the town.

There are two distinct moments in this passage. The first consists in Jesus’ teaching and the effect he has on his listeners. The second consists in Jesus’ first miracle, the exorcism of the unclean spirit. These two moments are closely linked in that the presence and preaching of the Kingdom cause a reaction in all and, in particular, in the demon possessed man. The authority of the words of Jesus is backed up by his action of mercy, by his miracle of deliverance. This is a concrete example of salvation coming as a free gift of the Father, who reaches out to those in need and who are oppressed. Teaching and action go hand in hand. The words explain the action, the action supports the words. The episode is intended to show by word and example that the Kingdom has, indeed, come and is operative in the person of Jesus Christ. He is the Kingdom, he reigns supreme over all, including the powers of darkness that oppress man. The episode also provides an example of how our witness should be – a combination of both words and actions. It also invites us to examine ourselves and decide on whose rule we are under, in which kingdom we now find ourselves, on whose side we are on. The choice is between Christ who brings mercy, victory, life and freedom and Satan, who brings defeat, oppression, death and destruction.

The Battle of the Two Rulers

The preparations for the ministry of Jesus are over. The time for action has come and the place chosen is the synagogue. Jesus, as a faithful Jew, begins in the traditional place of worship, when people gather to celebrate the Sabbath. He had come, after all, first and foremost for the house of Israel:

go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’  Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. (Matthew 10:6, 7)
Here the Kingdom of God is revealed in the person of Jesus Christ. It takes everyone by surprise and makes an astonishing impact on all present.

The event is by no means casual; nothing happens by chance, as the Christian well knows. As we have already seen, God’s will rules supreme. We have a head-on conflict between good and evil, between he who rules the universe and the ruler of the world that lies under the curse. It is a test of strength between two rulers. Satan had won a temporary victory over God’s creation in Genesis when mankind and creation fell under the curse. The promise of redemption present in Genesis (Genesis 3:15) has now begun and the situation is being reversed. In this episode we have redemption in action. It is a specific historical event with significant symbolic value.

The Kingdom of God enters the world of man with authority and power:

if it is by the finger of God that I cast out the demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you.(Luke 11:20)
There is no real contest here. The evil spirit is tormented by even the presence of Jesus. The unclean spirit cannot tolerate the presence of the Holy one of God. So it has always been and so shall it always be. Like Christ also the true Christian will always be a sign of contradiction and will always be the voice of conscience of those who do not believe and they will always say “What have you to do with us”? There will always be a radical difference which will either attract or repel.

The Word in Action

In the previous passage we saw that Jesus went around proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom. Here, in the synagogue, we have the Kingdom preached in word and in deed. In his typically succinct style Mark simply says he ‘taught’. We do not know the details of the content of the teaching but the importance and the effect of his teaching could not escape his listeners and is highlighted here. His teaching was radically different from what the crowd was used to and certainly very different from the teaching of the religious leaders of the time. There was something different about this man that people could not ignore or be indifferent to. The effect was unforgettable. The listeners were ‘astounded’, ‘amazed’. What he said penetrated to the depths. It had ‘authority’ and that ‘authority’ in the message was backed up by authority and power in action. He is preaching the Kingdom, he is the King himself, it is he who rules and it is he who commands. The unclean spirit has no choice but to obey his command. People do have the choice to follow him or not but at the end of time all shall have to recognise his authority

so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.  (Philippians 2:10, 11)
We have the creative word of God in action once again. Whenever the Word of God is spoken there is always authority, there is always power. The Word of God never ceases to surprise, to astound and to have effect on those who listen to it, an effect that no human words can ever have:
Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live. (Isaiah 55:2, 3)
“Listen, so that you may live”. We have seen the creative Word of God from the very first verses of Genesis. “Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.” (Genesis 1:3) The Word of God creates, it gives shape, it sets free. To benefit from this there is but one condition, to listen ‘carefully’, very carefully, to let the Word sink into the depths of our spirit and allow it to illumine  and transform us from within. What we listen to and absorb will either lead us to life or death. So listen to me, says the Lord and eat, devour what is good, then come to me. Listen carefully, Incline your ear, come to me, listen, live. How wonderful would we discover our God to be, how amazed we would be if we only listened attentively: “be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). “Listen, so that you may live”. That invitation is for us today. Listen and live.

The words of Jesus penetrated the depths of the man with the unclean spirit. They penetrated that fortress of evil that held him prisoner. The man heard, he listened, it went down to the depths to where the unclean spirit dwelt and the man was set free; he began to live. “Let there be light and there was light” (Gen. 1:3). Nothing can resist the command of Jesus, nothing can resist the mercy of God, just “Listen, so that you may live”. Evil can object, it can struggle and scream yet when faced with the authority of Jesus all that is of no avail. No matter what situation you are in, no matter what spirit has a grip on you, whatever your addiction may be, “Listen, so that you may live”, “be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). The Holy Spirit of God within you is infinitely stronger than the evil spirit that attacks you and destroys you from the outside:

the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world (1 John 4:4)
Let us devour the ‘rich food’ of God’s Word, let us delight in it, let us listen to it, let us eat what is good and wholesome and we, too, shall experience the same freedom from whatever saddens us, oppresses us, enslaves us, destroys us. We, too, shall experience the newness of life for which we were created.

one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. (Deuteronomy 8:3; Matthew 4:4)

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