Panic, Convulsions, and Things Torn Apart: God’s Victory Made Local (Mark 1:21-28)

by The Rev. Daniel P Strandlund on January 28, 2021
This week’s passage of Jesus’ entering a synagogue and casting out an unclean spirit is Jesus’ first real public act of power.  In Mark, one way of understanding deeds of power like this is to see them as recapitulations of what we read last week: God’s victory over Satan during Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness (Mark 1:12-1:13).  When Jesus casts out the unclean spirit in the synagogue, God’s cosmic victory over Satan is made local and specific in the Galilean community of Capernaum.  Today, we’re going to retrace our steps a bit before looking at the drama of Jesus’ first public act.
 
Last week we saw that Mark’s Gospel starts out in the wrong place.  God’s messenger, John the Baptist, doesn’t show up at the Temple in Jerusalem where he’s supposed to (Malachi 3:1) but instead appears in the wilderness waist deep in the Jordan River (Mark 1:2-9).  After Jesus is baptized, the Spirit drives Jesus even further into the wilderness where his confrontation with Satan and the wild beasts happens offstage.  We don’t really get to see it happen; we’re just told about it (1:12-13). 
 
All this occurs over a non-specific span of time: in “the beginning” (1:1) and “in those days” (1:9).  For much of these early verses we’re also in non-specific places like “the wilderness.”  The effect of all this is to create a kind of mythic, archetypical past in which certain fundamentals of this Gospel story are established: God’s prophetic messenger preceded Jesus; Jesus is God’s Son; Jesus overcomes Satan in the wild; henceforth, Jesus will represent and exercise God’s own power.
 
Only after these mythic fundamentals are established does the story really get started in anything like a real concrete place Mark’s audience might actually have known well: the shores of the Sea of Galilee where Jesus calls some very ordinary fishermen as disciples (1:16-20).  But notice that even this concrete action happens at the edge of the sea.  Jesus still hasn’t crossed into town centers or homes or places where anybody lives.  We’ve been outdoors this whole time while Mark slowly builds the suspense before Jesus’ dramatic entry into public ministry.
 
This finally happens in 1:21 when Jesus enters the town of Capernaum, which is on the northwest corner of the Sea of Galilee.  Jesus and his first few followers don’t just enter the town, either, but the town’s synagogue: the center of Jewish Galilean life.  A first century synagogue in Galilee wasn’t one of several ‘religious’ buildings people could choose from in the way we have lots of different kinds of churches in Buda; the synagogue would’ve been central to Capernaum’s community life.  This scene is a bit like Jesus’ entering St. Elizabeth, city hall, and a local community center all at once.  And Jesus enters on the sabbath, when the synagogue was likely to be full. 
 
Notice what has happened: Mark the Storyteller has led us from the mythic beginnings of “in those days” when God’s own Son strove with Satan in the wilderness to a specific synagogue in a specific town on a specific day of the week.  Mark has led us out of something like myth and into something like history.[1] 
 
The whole synagogue scene is symbolically rich.  Jesus enters the synagogue on the sabbath and begins to teach, astounding all those who hear him.  That word “astounded” brings with it a hint of panic.  This isn’t the kind of astonishment we get beholding a fireworks display, for example; it’s more unsettling than that.[2]  We don’t know exactly what Jesus says—Mark’s Jesus isn’t prone to long speeches—only that he says it with great authority.  This authority provokes Jesus’ first challenger: an unclean spirit.  Jesus rebukes the spirit and commands it to leave the man it has possessed.  The man falls to the ground, convulses, and the spirit is banished.  The folks in the synagogue are amazed at Jesus’ authority, and his fame begins to spread.

There’s more to be said about Jesus’ exchange with the unclean spirit.  For today what we need to note is that this unclean spirit appears to consider the synagogue its own territory, and that it challenges Jesus as if Jesus were the outsider.[3]  “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” (1:24)  The unclean spirit clearly doesn’t consider Jesus to be one of “us,” whoever “us” is.
 
Who is this “us,” exactly?  I think this is an interesting question, one for which I don’t have a firm answer.  Mark may give us a clue in 1:22 when he makes it a point to distinguish Jesus’ teaching from that of the scribes.  The unclean spirit doesn’t challenge Jesus simply for walking into the synagogue, but only challenges him after it’s clear that Jesus teaches with authority which, so Mark tells us, the scribes don’t have.  That seems to be what sets the unclean spirit off: it sees Jesus as an intruder into its own spiritual territory—its own master’s kingdom, we might say—which Mark suggests may be related to the spiritual territory where the scribes are in charge. 
 
We have to note this possible connection between unclean spirit and scribes without making too much of it; the two groups are not identical.  Mark is letting us know, however, that one of the core conflicts in his Gospel is going to be between Jesus’ ministry and the literate, scribal class whose home base is in Jerusalem (2:6, 16; 7:5, etc.).[4]  But we should note that Jesus confronts the scribes from within the tradition he shares with them: just as Jesus is inside the synagogue when he casts out the unclean spirit, so, too, Jesus’ confrontations with scribes and Pharisees happen ‘inside’ a shared tradition.
 
Regardless of who the unclean spirit’s “us” is, Jesus definitely plants a flag in this synagogue episode.  He announces his mission and, as we’ll see next week, establishes in Capernaum a base of operations.  The first half of Mark’s Gospel (1:1-8:21‘ish) focuses on Jesus’ ministry in Galilee.  In these chapters it’s as though Jesus establishes in Galilee a lifegiving powerbase for God’s kingdom.  Only after ‘conquering the Galilean territory’ will Jesus and his followers gradually move south into Jerusalem, making their own spiritual invasion into the scribal power base in the second half of Mark’s Gospel (8:22’ish – 16:8).  Jesus’ life, ministry, and eventual crucifixion and resurrection is how God reclaims His own territory.[5]
 
All this is prefigured in this synagogue exorcism.  Notice the levels of conflict we’ve witnessed so far.  First, at the highest level, what we might call the cosmic level, Jesus is revealed as God’s Son and enters the mythic wilderness to overthrow Satan (1:11-1:13).  This is the fundamental narrative of Mark’s Gospel; everything else is showing us how this plays out.  Second, we have a geo-political level.  Jesus enters the broad geography of Galilee and proclaims the good news of God’s kingdom (1:14-1:15).  Keep in mind that Galilee is province under the dominating occupation of another kingdom, Rome, and that Rome used that same phrase good news to celebrate their imperial victories.  The language of Jesus’ proclamation, then, is not only political but also subversive.  Third, we have the local community.  Jesus enters the synagogue of Capernaum, teaches, and ends up panicking the whole congregation (1:21-1:22).  Fourth, we have Jesus’ interaction with an individual man.  An unclean spirit challenges Jesus, and when Jesus rebukes it, the spirit convulses the man and is banished (1:23-1:26).  Succinctly, the levels look like this:
 
Cosmic: God’s Son and angels vs. Satan and symbolic ‘wild beasts’ (1:12-1:13)
Political: God’s kingdom in Galilee vs. Roman kingdom (1:14-1:15)
Local: Jesus’ teaching authority causes synagogue panic (1:21-1:22)
Individual: Jesus rebukes an unclean spirit in a single man (1:23-1:26)
 
What Mark wants us to know is that each of these levels is connected to the others.  When Jesus casts out the unclean spirit from the man, this local victory ripples outward.  This single exorcism changes the synagogue’s panic into the spread of Jesus’ fame.  This, in turn, will build a movement around Jesus which is wholly opposed to Roman oppression.[6]  And all this is how God’s mythic, archetypical overthrow of Satan in the wilderness is revealed in specific times and places.  We might show these interconnected levels in reverse, as well:
 
                        Jesus rebukes the unclean spirit (individual) à
                        Synagogue panic becomes spread of Jesus’ fame (local) à
                        Jesus’ fame generates a lifegiving movement, God’s kingdom (political) à
                        God’s overthrow of Satan and imperial beasts of earth is revealed (cosmic).
 
God’s victory is being made local in places like Capernaum, and these local victories are a revealing of God’s cosmic overthrow of Satan and the powers of darkness.  All this is very good news. 
 
But be warned: God’s victory comes with and through conflict.  The man with the unclean spirit convulses on the floor of the synagogue when Jesus rebukes the demon.  Jesus’ fame spreading through Galilee starts as panic felt by the synagogue community.  The heavens are torn apart when God speaks at Jesus’ baptism (1:10).  This is not a meek and mild thing unfolding.  It’s apocalyptic—a word that literally means revealing, an unhiding, the breaking-into-the-world of God in specific times and places to overthrow the powers of darkness. 
 
What we can expect in the chapters to come, then, is that as this Galilean movement around Jesus grows, so too will the conflicts, the convulsions, the sense of panic and of things torn apart.  It’s terrifying, yes, but also heralds something new on the way.  When we experience these things, Mark’s Jesus will tell us, it is “but the beginning of the birth pangs” (13:8).
 
A question worth reflecting on in our own time is this: when we see and experience conflicts, societal convulsions, panic, and things torn apart, are these merely tumults to be survived, or are they but the beginning of the birth pangs of something new?  Are these signs that God’s cosmic victory is being made local in our times and places?
 
God’s Peace,
 
 
Fr. Daniel+
 
 
[1] These are not terms Mark himself would’ve used; nor do I use “myth” to mean “fake.”  I simply use myth and history here to describe the feel of the narrative as it shifts from 1:1-20 to this episode beginning in 1:21.  Our plot, setting, and timeframe get more specific as we move into the Capernaum ministry.
[2] It’s the same word used to describe his disciples’ unsettled feeling (10:26) when Jesus tells them that it’ll be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.  See 10:23-26.
[3] Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: a Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (20th anniversary edition, 10th printing, Dec 2017) Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2008, 141-143.
[4] It’s beyond the scope of this piece, but it will be important for us in the future to discern why the scribes emerge as Jesus opponents.  This might help us figure out if and to what extent the scribes may be linked with the unclean spirits.  The temptation in our own day is to link the unclean spirits with ancient Judaism generally, which we must not do.  Instead, as we will see, it’s possible that the historical scribal community Mark is criticizing represent particular subsets of powerful religious-cultural leaders and/or leaders of violent (and ill-fated) Jewish rebellions against Rome.  Still, it’s an intriguing question to ponder: who does the demon mean in saying “us?”  Compare to the episode in Mark 5:1-20.
[5] Jesus’ “rebuke” is language associated elsewhere in scripture with God kicking out foreign-invader kings, metaphorical wild beasts, and Satan (Psalm 80:16, Psalm 68:30, and Zech. 3:2, respectively).  Thus, there’s a subtle hint that it’s really the unclean spirit and its associates who are the intruders.
[6] There are multiple layers here, too.  As we’ll see, Mark is concerned to show that God’s kingdom gathering around Jesus isn’t just antithetical to the Roman Empire, but is also antithetical to the various violent uprisings against the Roman Empire. 
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