Demons in the Synagogue

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What is authority? Who should have it and who actually does have it? These are two big questions that I wrestle with often. Authority has so often been abused; I find myself wary of anyone who claims it. Perhaps it would be helpful to define that term before delving into Mark 1:21-28, which is a story about authority.

The simple definition of authority is the right to do something. Often, we confuse authority with power, which is simply defined as the ability to do something. Just because someone has the power to do something does not mean they have the authority to do it. And conversely, just because someone has the right to do something, does not mean they can do it. Do you see how these two ideas go hand in hand? Their distinction is important. In Mark 1:21-28, Jesus is shown to have authority on earth because of his power in the spiritual realm. Because he can control spirits, he has the right to teach us about God.

Here is my translation of Mark 1:21-28.

And they go into Capernaum, and at once, entering into the synagogue on the Sabbath, he began to teach. And they marveled about his teaching for he was teaching them as someone who has authority and not as the scribes.

And at once, there is a man in their synagogue with an unclean spirit, and he shouted, “What do we have to do with each other, Jesus of Nazareth? Did you come to kill us? I know who you are: the Holy One of God.”

And Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Hush!” And, “Come out of him!”

And the unclean spirit, having thrown him into spasms and making a loud sound, came out of him.

And every single person was astonished. So, they discussed among themselves saying, “What is this new, authoritative teaching? He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”

And the news about him went out at once, everywhere into the neighboring towns of Galilee.

In this story, we read of an evil spirit in the last place we should expect. The synagogue. A 1st century Jewish synagogue was a gathering hall where Jewish men came to read and study the Torah, and all the people gathered to worship on Sabbath. It was used as a school and a library, housing the scrolls of the Hebrew Scriptures for the village or borough. The tradition of founding a synagogue began while the Jewish people were taken in exile to Babylon and Persia around 400 years prior when they were severed from the temple sacrifices. Anytime there were ten men over the age of thirteen, a new synagogue could be established. The synagogue at Capernaum was large and well-funded by Roman sympathizers living in the region. As the local center of Jewish spiritual studies, it was not a place you would expect demonic activity.

The tension builds.

Remember that Mark uses the phrase, “at once” as a bullet point to highlight useful information. In verse 21, Mark uses his bullet point by saying “at once” they entered the synagogue on the Sabbath. He is pointing to the where and when as significant. This is the first time Mark presents the tension between Jesus and the local system of worship. The tension centers on Jesus’ right to teach as he did, and what Jesus discovers lurking in one of the men inside the synagogue.

There is a tension between Jesus and the Jewish teachers. The people at the synagogue recognize that Jesus teaches in a new way. It is authoritative, unlike anything they have heard taught at the synagogue before. Notice that Mark doesn’t tell us what Jesus taught? Mark does not emphasize Jesus’ teaching topics, but the quality of the teaching itself. The prestigious scribes only gave interpretations of the law, telling the people what the law said and how to apply it. But Jesus assumes the right to tell people what was right and wrong as a law unto itself. He had received this authority from God at his baptism, and  he understood himself to be God’s Son. No one or no law could take his place. He was unique and qualified to speak the Word of God. His command over the unclean spirit proved his authoritative teaching was valid.

Next, Mark bullet points the next spot of tension. “At once, there is a man in their synagogue with an unclean spirit.” Before we can go any further and address the irony of no one knowing there was a demon amongst them until it recognized Jesus, we should sort out what this spirit was. Let’s take a little detour.

What are “unclean spirits?”

The original readers of Mark would not be asking the questions that jump into the minds of modern, western readers when we read about the presence of an unclean spirit. In the cognitive environment of the 1st century, most assumed that there were invisible beings at work in this world. But today, we are materialists. We distrust anything that cannot be proven with empirical evidence.  I have never seen a spirit, nor any kind of spirit activity, so I have a hard time believing that they are real. How should we interpret this encounter with the spirit world?

Should we interpret spirits as mythological beings? Are they fanciful allegories? Were they invented to explain things that the ancient people did not understand? Since the ancient people believed that spirits were real, perhaps Jesus needed to express his authority over these ancient myths. I don’t like this explanation because this would set Jesus up as pretending to do something, and that contradicts his character. It also ignores the fact that many ancients did not believe in the existence of spirits, the Sadducees are one example. If spirits are mythological, then Jesus is too.

How about a psychosomatic understanding? Are spirits and demons a way that ancients explained the presence of mental illness? This understanding fits well with our current perception of the widespread occurrence of mental illness. Most of us have never experienced a spirit, but we do know that mental illness and drug use can make people behave in strange, other-worldly ways. It might be easier to think that those described as having an unclean spirit are schizophrenic, not under the control of a bodiless entity we can’t explain.  This might be an acceptable answer if we are willing to say that the gospel writers recorded these incidents incorrectly. They record the encounter as if there is a being that interacts with the material world. Jesus speaks with the spirits. The crowds hear the spirit and see the spirit overtake a person’s will and body functions. In the Bible stories and in extra-biblical references, it was not disputed that Jesus healed as well as cast out spirits. These are two separate actions.

We could understand the presence of spirits as a supernatural occurrence, something outside of the natural world exerting influence on it. This is how an ancient person would understand spirits. They were invisible beings from the realm of the gods intersecting with ours. Most ancient societies had rituals and magic incantations that they believed influenced and controlled this realm. The problem with the supernatural understanding, is that it sets these spirits up on par with God. Instead of understanding them to be a part of the natural, physical, and created world, they become something super. From page one of the Bible, God places himself above the ancient understanding of gods and magic. If you believe that God is the creator of everything in our reality, then these spirits fall somewhere within the natural world. They are creatures that are governed by some natural law of the universe yet undiscovered. This is an important distinction. Jesus, as the son of God, claims the right of creator. His word becomes the law that governs these spirit creatures.

How does Mark understand this spirit? A few verses prior, Mark writes that Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming that the kingdom of God is nearby. It is close beside us. Jesus taught that there is a realm of reality that is invisible which intersects and influences the material world. Jesus calls it a kingdom because he lived in a culture that understood authority and power in terms of kings and reigns. In modern lingo, we might say that God’s dimension is present and able to control our dimension. God’s dimension affects the material world in immaterial ways. Mark understands that there is another realm that is inhabited by spiritual, or interdimensional creatures like this spirit who recognizes the identity of Jesus as the master of time and space.

Mark describes this spirit as unclean. It is polluted, contaminated, pathological and unholy. Mark tells the story as if the man was in the synagogue the whole time Jesus was teaching, only being revealed when the spirit shouts defensively at Jesus. Mark’s Hellenistic readers would recognize the spirit’s use of Jesus’ name and hometown as a defense common in magical rites. It was if the spirit had to speak his name and get the upper hand before Jesus saw him lurking inside the man. The spirit felt in danger and its fear is evident in his plaintive cry, “Did you come to kill us?” It tries again to gain some control of the situation by naming Jesus, the Holy One of God.

In contrast, Jesus does not use names, nor magical ritual, nor physical aids. His words alone are enough to command action. There is dramatic, immediate obedience. Jesus can command the spiritual realm. Because he has power over unclean spirits, his right to teach about God in a new way was validated. The people watching the spectacle ponder this conclusion as well, and we feel the tension in their discussion. They wonder, what does this new teaching mean for me and this place of worship? Is everything going to change? Am I fully convinced Jesus has the right to tell me what God wants? Am I willing to do what he says?

The news spreads.

Mark’s final bullet point in this story is about the speed and extent of which the news traveled. “The news about him went out at once, everywhere…” This was sensational story, and it was also a bit scandalous. There was a man with a demon in the synagogue and Jesus exposed it! Perhaps they wondered how long he had been there, and how the leaders could have missed it themselves? Not only does Jesus’s authority reveal a lack in the teaching of the Jewish leaders, but his authority also reveals there is something unclean and unholy in the synagogue itself, and on the Sabbath no less. Jesus was solving problems that no one was even aware of, nor could handle even if they were.   

As I read this story, I can’t help but compare it to the news of scandalous situations that spread quickly through today’s news. Should we be surprised when we hear of demons in the synagogues today? I am figuratively referring to all the sex, money and ego scandals in religious ministries and Christian churches. There are so many corrupt, polluted, pathological and unholy spirits at work! It seems as if they are piling up recently, and that may make us wonder, who has the right to tell us about God? What authority can we trust?

Ultimately, you can trust Jesus. Jesus knows where the unclean spirits are. He exposes them and he commands them. Places of worship have held unclean spirits before, and they will continue to. We may not be aware of them until the scandal breaks, but Jesus is at work, solving the problem. Jesus does not ask us to place our trust in religious authorities, but in him.  Because he can control spirits, he has the right to teach us about God.

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