Real Authority: Reflections on Mark 1:21-28
But someone else is. We hear the voice of the unclean spirit. Mark loves irony, and this is a good example of it. It is ironic that an unclean spirit is the first one to voice his recognition of who Jesus is. "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" (1:24). This is the same claim that is made in Luke in the parallel passage (4:34). Some scholars propose that the label "Holy One of God," is the equivalent of calling him a charismatic teacher. Others see it more clearly as identifying Jesus with the Messiah. (Thompson 36)
Either way, the unclean spirit is scared. We can hear it in his voice. The quavering beneath the bravado. The fear lurking in the fury. He recognizes an eviction notice when he sees one. Might those internal fears be signs for us as well, and ones worth paying extra attention to?
Each of the four gospels portrays this drama of the gradual unfolding of Jesus' identity. In Mark, it's the demonic powers that attest to Jesus' real identity from the outset, while others, including his own disciples, remain blind to the implications of both his teaching and his miracles. (John, 12) "From the Gospel writers' point of view, the whole world is in the grip of fallen powers and their work is everywhere to be seen. All sickness, sin and disorder derive from their rule." (John, 12)
Jesus is the one who bears God's unique authority and power to drive down the authority of the demons. "In the miracles we are meant to see the force of God's kingly rule driving back the frontiers of darkness and reclaiming God's creation for God." Jeffrey John, in his book The Meaning in the Miracles, points out that it is a measure of the Pharisees' resistance that seeing Jesus' miracles and the good produced by his healings, they still raise their voices and attribute it all to Satan. (John, 13) But the unclean spirit recognizes the sound of the real enemy's voice. The real enemy of chaos and sin is Jesus. The enemy of the unclean spirit is Jesus.
When that which is sinful and unclean in our lives recognizes that Jesus is coming too close for comfort, we resist. That goes for individuals and communities. We react with uneasiness. Emotions of an ugly nature get stirred up. Maybe it would be best if we named our central anxiety and remembered the saving Authority of God's voice. The One whose voice and presence can drive out our demons is in the house. Amid all the competing voices we hear, we should listen to his.
"Have you come to destroy us?" asks the unclean spirit. He already knows the answer. Because he has heard Jesus' voice. If we do the same, what will have to be evicted from our lives?
Mary R. Thompason, S.S. M.N, The Role of Disbelief in Mark: A New Approach to the Second Gospel (Paulist Press, 1989).
Jeffrey John, The Meaning in the Miracles, (Eerdmans Publishing Co, 2004).
Alyce M. McKenzie is the George W. and Nell Ayers Le Van Professor of Preaching and Worship at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.