Real Authority: Reflections on Mark 1:21-28

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Lectionary Reflections
Mark 1:21-28

January 29, 2012

I remember from my Soccer Mom days feeling sorry for the boys whose parents tried to outcoach the coach. I still remember the confused look on the boys' faces when their mom or dad was on one side of the field yelling to them to do one thing (usually score) and coach was on the other yelling the opposite (usually pass). Many times, a boy would shake his head angrily toward his parent and then do what the coach said. Good choice. The angry head shaking spoke louder than words. It said, "You are not the authority here. You need to be quiet so I can hear my coach's voice."

We encounter multiple voices in life, and are constantly discerning which one to listen to. Sometimes, when there is a high noise level around and within us, it's not such an easy task. All four gospels start out with the narrator tipping the reader off as to the primary voice we'll be hearing as we continue reading. Matthew tells us it is Jesus the Messiah, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham. John tells us that it's The Word who became flesh. In Luke, it is more indirect; we are given an account of "the events that have been fulfilled among us" (1:1).

Mark tells us to listen specifically for the voice of the Son of God. In any novel, we encounter many voices: the narrator as well as other characters offering their soliloquies and dialogue. A person's voice is unique like their signature or fingerprint, so voice makes a nice metaphor for a person's unique contribution and perspective. If you have a favorite author you've met and heard speak, you hear his or her voice in your head when you read their next book. In Mark's gospel we're being schooled to learn to recognize the distinctive voice of Jesus the Son of God. We learn it through what he talks about, through what he doesn't talk about, and through his actions that speak louder than words.

We also learn about who Jesus is by listening to the voices of those around him. Throughout Mark a series of proclamations of Jesus' identity are voiced by various characters in the narrative:

1:11—"Thou art my beloved Son, with thee I am well pleased." (voice from heaven)

3:11—"You are the Son of God!" (voices of the unclean spirits)

5:7—"What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?" (voice of demon whose "name is Legion")

8:29—"You are the Christ!" (Peter)

9:7—"This is my beloved Son; listen to him. (voice from the cloud on the mount of Transfiguration)

15:39—"Truly this man was the Son of God." (voice of the centurion at the cross)

Here in our passage in Mark 1:21-28 we hear three voices.

We hear the voices of the synagogue-goers, taking the dramatic role of a Greek chorus. They express how impressed they are with Jesus' authoritative teachings. They are astounded at his teaching because it had authority. He is not simply passing onto them the traditions he had learned, but confidently presenting his interpretations. We as readers are not surprised, since the voice of the narrator of the gospel has already, at the outset of the gospel (1:1) told us that Jesus is the Son of God. The implication is that the authority of Jesus to teach, to exorcise and to heal comes from the Spirit of God whose power is working through him. But the synagogue goers aren't ready to go that far in affirming Jesus' identity.

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)