top of page

"One Sabbath in Capernaum"

Whatever he taught, the people were astounded – for instead of just quoting other teachers, as was typical, he taught as one who knew God face to face.


"Jesus Casts Out the Unclean Spirit," by Konrad von Friesach, Photo by Padre Josef at the Cathedral of Gurk, Carinthia, Austria, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN
"Jesus Casts Out the Unclean Spirit," by Konrad von Friesach, Photo by Padre Josef at the Cathedral of Gurk, Carinthia, Austria, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN

Mark 1:21-28

January 28, 2024

Dr. Todd R. Wright


Each of the gospel writers has their own perspective about Jesus’ mission and so they start their accounts of his ministry with different stories. One scholar sums it up this way: “In Matthew, Jesus is a teacher and (new) lawgiver like Moses, [giving the beatitudes and more in his Sermon on the Mount]. In John, he creates unexpected and unimaginable abundance, [turning water into wine]. In Luke, [by quoting Isaiah, he claims to be] the one who releases those held captive, heals the ill and infirm, and proclaims good news to the poor and the Lord’s favor to all. And in Mark … he picks a fight with an unclean spirit.”[2]


 

It happened, Mark says, one Sabbath in Capernaum.


Scott Hoezee imagines the scene: “Some of [the Jews in Capernaum] went sleepily, others went with a great weariness following a busy week of work. Still others trekked over in a rather irritable mood. (Who knows why – maybe they were out of cream cheese and the bagel at breakfast that morning just wasn’t as good without it.) Still others arrived having bickered with their kids on the way over.”[3]


He goes on: “They came because, among other things, it was their habit to do so. For as long as many of them could remember they had gone to synagogue on [the] Sabbath. It was the thing to do. It was what was expected of you. You went to the synagogue, moved your way through [a] fairly staid and predictable liturgy, listened as the scribes read a portion of the Torah, sang a Hallel doxology, and then you went home for the feast day meal.”


Jesus seems to have been something like a guest preacher that day. He was welcomed – as a sign of hospitality and perhaps with the hope that he would bring a little variety to the mix.


We are not told what he taught that day. Maybe he read from Isaiah. Or maybe he told a parable about two sons and a generous father. Or maybe he continued as he had earlier in Mark, saying “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe!”


Whatever he taught, the people were astounded – for instead of just quoting other teachers, as was typical, he taught as one who knew God face to face.


 

And that’s when things got really interesting!


Mark says, “There was a man in the synagogue who had an unclean spirit.”


Maybe everyone knew he was a little off – like that Sunday when a homeless women joined us for worship and started shouting partway through the service! (Remember that?) Or maybe it was more like someone with Tourette’s – involuntary sounds and movements – they were used to.


Or maybe it was something he hid – something common like depression or alcoholism.


Whatever it was, something Jesus said set him off. The man began shouting, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?”      


 

Can you hear the fear? The anger? The desperation?


The unclean spirit clings to the man like a toddler who will not be pried out of their parent’s arms. The more you pull, the louder they shriek and the tighter their grip.


Most people, when faced with such a situation, give up.


Not Jesus.


He says, “Be silent, and come out of him!”


After shaking the man like a windchime in a hurricane, the unclean spirit left.


And everyone was amazed! So his fame spread throughout the region!


 

Now why do you suppose Mark told this story as a way of introducing Jesus to his audience?


Remember, Mark is not a reporter. He is not just telling the facts or compelled by a set timeline. He is telling a well-crafted story. He is making a point.


So why does Jesus pick a fight with the demon possessing this man?


Is it a demonstration of his God-like power – like stilling a storm at sea?


Is it a sign of compassion – like healing the blind or the lame?


Maybe, but I think there is something else going on here.


Remember last week when I quoted Ched Myers, “If Tiberius was ground zero in Herod’s project of Romanizing the regional economy, then Capernaum up the coast, a village profoundly impacted by such policies, was the logical place to [begin] building a movement of resistance”?[4]


Well, I think Mark is telling this story as a symbol of resistance.


The man with the unclean spirit is possessed, occupied, overwhelmed, just as the people in Capernaum are by Rome. He is frightened and angry, as they are, but struggling has not freed him. He is embarrassed and ashamed, as they are, but the forces that have taken up residence cannot be evicted. He is tired and traumatized, as they are, but no one can give him any reason to hope.


Until Jesus.


One Sabbath in Capernaum Jesus joins the battered and bruised, the bullied and badly broken for worship. And when Jesus is confronted with this stubborn demon, he doesn’t throw up his hands in frustration. He doesn’t ignore it, as if it will go away on its own. He doesn’t talk a big game, make empty promises, and then disappear and disappoint.


He tells the demon to leave. And the demon does!


 

Who is this Jesus?


To Mark he is the one who comes to say that God has heard people’s cries.


He is the one who believes that people should be free.


Free from demons and disease, like this man;

free from disillusionment and the trauma of oppression, like all of Capernaum;

free from being stuck in a hole they cannot escape, like all of God’s people.  


For Mark, Jesus has the power to bring all that to pass … and this scene is a glimpse!


 

When you heard this story read, I wonder where you located yourself?


Were you one of the regular worshippers, seeking God’s comfort in repeated rituals?


Were you the possessed man, aching for relief but exhausted from the struggle?


Were you one of the disciples, following Jesus, but still learning what he can do?


Wherever you saw yourself, know that the Jesus Mark will introduce us to this lectionary year will not leave things unchanged. He will bring freedom. He will call us to live as freed people. And he will put us to work freeing others – body, mind, and spirit! Amen


[1] "Jesus Casts Out the Unclean Spirit," by Konrad von Friesach, Photo by Padre Josef at the Cathedral of Gurk, Carinthia, Austria, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN
[2] From David Lose’ reflections on the text, “First Things First”, 1/26/15
[3] Here and following from Scott Hoezee’s reflections on the text for cepreaching.org, 1/28/18
[4] From “Let’s catch some big fish” Jesus’ call to discipleship in a world of injustice,” 1/22/15

2 views

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page