‘Teaching with authority’ is what Mark shows us about Jesus as he starts on his mission. There is a twist in what Mark calls a ‘teaching’ that sets his gospel apart from the usual meaning of being listened to.
The title of this, the fifth book in our Bibles, comes from the Greek and means ‘Second Law’. It was the last written of the Torah, or Five Books of Moses, and contains a summary and interpretation of the code and covenant given at Sinai. The style sets it out as a long final address of Moses to the people, although the book describes Moses’ death and is unlikely to have been written by him. In its original context, our selection made a place for the prophets in the continuing religions life of the Hebrews. This promise of ‘a prophet like Moses’ was taken up by Christians who saw it could also point to Jesus. In our liturgy, it paves the way for the reaction of the people in Mark’s Gospel, when they hear Jesus speak ‘with authority’.
Psalm 94:1-2, 6-9
The psalm opens with a call to rejoice in the Lord as creator, perhaps a call to temple services where they would ‘bow in worship’. We then go to a reminder of the importance of coming to God in the right spirit – not like those in history who ignored the blessings of the past and did not trust the Lord to continue to provide for them. The story of the people complaining and rebelling against Moses at Meribah (which means ‘dispute’) and Massah (meaning ‘testing’) is found in Exodus 17:1-7. At that time, the Israelites had long been in the Sinai after their deliverance from slavery under Pharaoh, and now were tiring of the hardships of the desert and even longing to return Egypt. Moses performs a miracle to give them water, but the naming of the place based on their grumbling was a lasting reminder of rebellion against God. The psalmist recognises it as a temptation for all times.
1 Corinthians 7:32-35
This reading follows last week’s, and must also be seen in the context of Paul’s expectation of Jesus’ return in a short period of time. It also picks up the issues in Corinth about appropriate sexual relations. Again the stress is on focusing on what is most important in the light of eternity: having no anxiety about present situations nor worry about making changes such as finding a marriage partner. Although this passage has been taken at times as a proof text that celibacy is a superior vocation to marriage, that does not seem to be Paul’s concern. The New Jerome Biblical Commentary: ‘it is the over-concentration on each other that a newly married bride and groom have to the exclusion of the wider community that concerns Paul.’ Marriage is not disparaged. Paul does, however, see celibacy as a valid choice as a vocation, way of life which has remained more important in the Catholic Church than in some other Christian denominations. Paul does not hesitate to speak with the authority of an Apostle, but he also gives advice that comes from his own point of view, as in this case.
The dignified language of our English version hides the sense of excitement of the Greek, with Mark twice using his favourite connecting word, which is variously translated – often as ‘immediately’ or ‘right then’. Jesus is taking his just-called disciples into Capernaum. It was a city on the edge of the Lake of Galilee and an important trading centre, so a good place for opening the mission in Galilee. (Nazareth, his childhood home was then a small unimportant hillside village.)
Full Jewish sacrificial worship could only be held in the temple at Jerusalem, but for people outside the city who wanted a place to come together on the Sabbath, there were synagogues (‘congregations’) where services were held with scripture readings and interpretations. Teaching is something Mark frequently says Jesus is doing, but rarely does he give any content to what was taught. (Compare the long discourses we got in Year A from Matthew.) He also leaves us to guess how it varied from the scribes, probably they would quote authorities, and what amazed the listeners was Jesus speaking as an authority himself.
And ‘right away’ there is an interruption from a possessed man. ‘Unclean’ is a ritual term for conditions that would in the Law keep a person from temple worship, and sometimes from associating with others, like the condition of leprosy. It was not a moral term. An evil spirit might be called ‘unclean’ when it led the person affected into behaviour against the ritual condition of purity. By calling Jesus by name, the spirit would be trying to claim power over him, a belief of the ancient world about the power of naming. The title ‘Holy One of God’ is rare in the Bible, and in the New Testament the only other use is Peter’s statement of belief in Jesus’ identity (John 6:69). The spirit here shows a knowledge about Jesus that at this point his listeners don’t have.
The people’s astonishment is increased when Jesus’ ‘teaching’– the Greek does not have ‘gave orders’ as does our translation – is shown to have dramatic effect. They recognize it as ‘a new kind of teaching’ resulting in direct action. The ‘new kind of teaching then seems to be action. Jesus ‘teaches’ by what he does as well as by what he says.
Mark is given to exaggeration when he talks about crowd reaction, but Jesus’ reputation surely spread widely from this opening in Capernaum and we will be often told in this Gospel how many ordinary people were drawn to him.
Many people today have a problem with the accounts of evil spirits and exorcisms in the Bible. Possession was a wide-spread belief then and there were other exorcists at that time. Some look for a different way to explain the Gospel accounts and give various ‘diagnoses’ such as suggesting it was mental illness or epilepsy. I find useful a distinction made by Timothy Radcliffe, O.P. who notes that a common first reaction for us is asking ‘what happened? how can it be explained?’ This is based on the idea that if we know what, and then we’ll know the meaning. Rather he says we should ask: what was the significance of the healing in that society? Look for the meaning of the event, not an explanation.
Showing Jesus’ first public action with an exorcism is a way of indicating that he is set against evil in all forms, and acts to save people from any of its effects.