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Mark 1:21-28
4th Sunday after the Epiphany - Year B

Other texts:


A. Jesus' Authority and the Pharisees' Blindness (1:14-3:6)

1. Jesus Proclaims the Kingdom of God (1:14-15)
2. The Call of the First Disciples (1:16-20)
3. Jesus' Authority Over Demons and Illness (1:21-45)

a) The Beginnings in Capernaum (1:21-28)
b) Healing Peter's Mother-in-law (1:29-31)
c) Other Healings (1:32-34)
d) Departure from Capernaum (1:35-39)
e) Healing a Leper (1:40-45)

4. Jesus' Authority Over Sin and the Law (2:1-3:6)

a) Healing and Forgiving the Paralytic (2:1-12)
b) The Call of Levi (2:13-14)
c) Association with Sinners (2:15-17)
d) Jesus and Fasting (2:18-22)
e) Sabbath Violations (2:23-28)
f) Healing the Withered Hand (3:1-6)

Because we have a long Epiphany Season, we are able to present nearly all of the texts in this outline (1:14-2:22). We've already had Jesus' proclamation and the call of the first disciples. Over the next three weeks, we will hear about Jesus' authority over demons and illnesses; then a couple of weeks on his authority over sin and the law. However, the significance of these miracles goes far beyond the physical or biological cures. It seems unlikely that Jesus would have been tortured to death for simply healing the sick.


Williamson (Mark, Interpretation Commentaries) offers the following outline of our verses:

General setting: Capernaum (21a)

The teaching of Jesus (21b-22)

Precise setting: Sabbath, synagogue (21b)
Essential action: taught (21c)
Response: astonishment, authority (22)

The exorcism in the synagogue (23-28)

Problem: unclean spirit (23-24)
Solution: healing word (25)
Evidence of cure: convulsion, shout (26)
Response: amazement, authority (27)

General conclusion: spreading fame (28)

He goes on to state:

The repetition of "teaching" and "authority" in verses 22 and 27 ties the two sub-units on teaching and healing into a single passage, as do the general setting and conclusion. It is somewhat awkward to refer to an exorcism as "a new teaching" (v. 27), but this very awkwardness shows the intention to subordinate healing to teaching, linking Jesus' power in both word and deed as evidence of his amazing authority. [p. 49]

Another word that is found at the beginning (v. 21) and the end (v. 28) and in the middle (v. 23) is "euthus" = "immediately". This adverb occurs 11 times in the first chapter of Mark (vv. 10, 12, 18, 20, 21, 23, 28, 29, 30, 42, 43). The readers/listeners hardly have time to catch their breath. Events are happening quickly. One immediately following another.


Another literary technique used by Mark in some of these verses is the historical present. This is when a writer uses the present tense to talk about a past event. The effect of this is to bring the hearer into the story. This is used at the beginning and the end of our text. Literally, v. 21 reads: "They go into Capernaum." V. 27bcd: "...they are discussing with each other saying, "What is this? A new teaching with authority! He is commanding the unclean spirits and they are obeying him." [NOTE: the NRSV captures continuous action of the present by "...they kept on asking...".]

Mark also uses the imperfect (continuous action in the past) to refer to Jesus' teaching in the synagogue: "he was teaching," "they were being amazed."

However, the tenses in the exorcism are primarily aorist (actions at a particular point in the past). The picture I get is at some point in the middle of Jesus' (ongoing) teaching in the synagogue, there is this momentary "interruption" of the man with the unclean spirit.


Our text begins by talking about "they" -- They go into Capernaum.

However, the subject of the next verb is singular: "He, entering into the synagogue, was teaching." Where are the disciples he had just called? Is it possible they were not in the synagogue on the sabbath with Jesus? However, v. 29 has a plural "they" leaving the synagogue, except in some variant readings where it is "he".

Whether the disciples were there or not, they are not involved in what happened there, except as, perhaps, part of the crowd -- who are never defined in these verses. I would presume that "they" are the people who have come to the synagogue to worship and be taught.

In a bit of a contrast to Jesus "entering into the synagogue" (v. 21); we have "immediately (or suddenly) a person was in their synagogue with an unclean spirit" (v. 23). It almost sounds like he just appeared there. Was he part of the crowd listening to Jesus' teaching who suddenly stood up and cried out? Did he come in off of the street?

In a much greater contrast, we have the "holy one of God" on the holy day (sabbath) in the holy place (synagogue) meeting an "unclean spirit." What was an unclean spirit/person doing in the synagogue on the Sabbath? Juel (Mark, Augsburg Commentaries) puts it: "The unclean spirit is in a holy place on a holy day, where it ought not to be" [p. 41]. Do we have any such people in our congregations who show up for worship on Sunday mornings? Do we think that there are people who ought not to be there? long-time members who stifle any attempts and modernizing the church? young children who would rather play than pay attention and participate in the worship? an autistic youth? an unwed mother and her noisy child? a smelly truck driver? a person with AIDS? a police officer in uniform with his weapon? a women who had been arrested for prostitution? a man who just got out of prison for molesting children, etc. Should such people be there?


There are a number of contrasts in these verses. One that I just mentioned is between the unclean spirit/person and the holy one of God (Jesus). In fact, Ched Myers (Binding the Strong Man) writes briefly about this: "The demon's challenge to Jesus (1:24) is a curious phrase in Greek (ti hemin kai soi;) translated by Taylor as 'What do we have in common?'"

Literally that phrase is: "What to us and to you?" The implication might be that there is nothing in common between "us and you" -- nothing in common between what is unclean and Jesus.

We have the proverb: "One bad apple spoils the whole bunch." Jewish laws said essentially the same thing: touching an unclean (or defiled?) person or thing made you unclean (or defiled). The bad infected the good. Jesus turns this around. This holy one from God can redeem the bad apples.

Ben Witherington III (The Gospel of Mark: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary) concludes his section on these verses with:

What one notices about Jesus' behavior is that he is never worried about becoming unclean or sick by fraternizing with or touching the spiritually or physically or morally unclean. Indeed, he seems to have gone out of his way in some cases to minister to them. Not surprisingly this behavior offended those who were part of the holiness movement of that day -- the Pharisaic movement. The question a text like Mark 1 raises for us is: Are we more concerned with public opinion and with not offending some people by being compassionate to society's outcasts, or are we more concerned with helping those in the greatest need in our society? The answer to this question in Jesus' case seems obvious form the very outset in Mark. Jesus did not particularly care whom he scandalized if he believed he was doing God's work and helping to bring in God's dominion. He was also more concerned with who got the cure than who got the credit. [p. 95-6]

An incident that comes to mind was whether or not I should embrace an openly gay man in public. If others saw that act of affection, would they misinterpret it? Would they assume things about me that were not true? Should I hug my friend and ignore what others might think or say about me? I'm sure that you could think of other examples from your own lives where the fear of others kept you from acting, or, at least, made you think about possible consequences, but proceeded with the actions anyway.

Perhaps the more significant contrast is that between Jesus' teaching and the scribe's teaching. The difference is described in two ways: Jesus teaches "with authority" (exousia), vv. 22, 27; and it is a "new (kainos) teaching," v. 27. Could there be a connection between his teaching being "new" (or "fresh") and its "authority"?

Scribes (grammateus) were originally the people who copied the scriptures. They became experts in the law (or "lawyers"). The word could also refer to any scholar.

There is a sense that their authority came from their detailed understanding of scriptures and tradition. (Is that why we clergy spend so many years in seminary?)

Richard Jensen (Preaching Mark's Gospel) describes this contrast in authority: "Scribal authority was based on their ability to recite the opinion of many Rabbis on a given topic. Jesus' word had authority because when he spoke, it came to pass" [p. 48].

Williamson (Mark, Interpretation Commentaries) says it a little differently:

They [the scribes] taught with erudition, but Jesus taught with authority. Jesus interprets the Scripture as one who has the right to say what it means. Furthermore, his teaching has no need of external support, whether from Scriptures or elsewhere; his word is self-authenticating, not like that of the scribes. [p. 50]

A little later he offers this "significance":

Mark's "not as the scribes" raises a question for all biblical interpreters. Does our teaching communicate the authority of Jesus Christ or obscure it? The text by its very brevity gives powerful expression to a lament over the sterility of biblical scholarship which is heard today, not only from obscurantists and anti-intellectuals, but also from members of the biblical guild and, most significantly, from ordinary church members.

The desire to be like Jesus and not like the scribes, however, can lead to consequences which violate the intent of the Marcan text and God's will for interpreters. Besides serving as an excuse to avoid the hard work of exegesis (confusing piety with laziness), a moralistic reading of the text can result in an arrogance that forgets our proper relationship to Jesus Christ. He is the one who can speak with direct authority. We interpreters remain essentially in the position of the scribes, dependent upon a prior authority and responsible to a scriptural tradition. We deceive ourselves and those we teach if we try to deny these limitations. [p. 52]

kainos can refer to something that did not exist before, e.g., the new teaching was something unheard of before. It can also refer to something that is "fresh".

A Treasury of Jewish Folklore: Stories, Traditions, Legends, Humor, Wisdom and Folk Songs of the Jewish People, Edited by Nathan Ausubel, contains this wonderful story:


Usually the orthodox rabbis of Europe boasted distinguished rabbinical genealogies, but Rabbi Yechiel of Ostrowce was an exception. He was the son of a simple baker and he inherited some of the forthright qualities of a man of the people.

Once, when a number of rabbis had gathered at some festivity, each began to boast of his eminent rabbinical ancestors. When Rabbi Yechiel's turn came, he replied gravely, "In my family, I'm the first eminent ancestor."

His colleagues were shocked by this piece of impudence, but said nothing. Immediately after, the rabbis began to expound Torah. Each one was asked to hold forth on a text culled from the sayings of one of his distinguished rabbinical ancestors.

One after another the rabbis delivered their learned dissertations. At last it came time for Rabbi Yechiel to say something. He arose and said, "My masters, my father was a baker. He taught me that only fresh bread was appetizing and that I must avoid the stale. This can also apply to learning."

And with that Rabbi Yechiel sat down. [p. 51]

What Jesus offered was something fresh -- and so should we!

However, another story related to Williamson's comments above.

I was at a workshop where a seminary professor friend was making a presentation. (I don't remember exactly what it was about, but something related to exegesis and preaching.) During a question period, another friend, started to ask a question, "Since Jesus taught in parables, shouldn't we...." Before he could finish asking about "story-sermons," the presenter interrupted, "You're not Jesus."

This professor had heard too many "story sermons" where it seemed -- at least to him -- that the preachers were creating their own canon of scriptures. Their own creative skills became their authority, rather than scriptures.

Jesus could and did create his own, new canon of scriptures. He had the authority to do that. There was power in the words he spoke. Our authority as preachers does not come from our wonderful creations we call sermons; but from taking the old, powerful words of scriptures and making them fresh, tasty, appetizing loaves of bread for our hearers.

One indication of my lack of authority is that I have not yet been able to heal any sick people with a word of command. My most elegant and forceful words seldom get people to even change their minds.


When the man with the unclean spirit (singular) cries out, he uses plural pronouns: "What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?" (v. 24). One interpretation is that "us" represents the power of evil. Perkins (Mark, New Interpreters Bible) puts it this way:

They [although it is "I" in the text] acknowledge Jesus' status as "Holy One of God" and the fact that his coming marks the end of their own domination over human beings (v. 24). The end of demonic power is a sign that the present evil age is coming to an end (cf. 1 Enoch 55:4). [p. 541]

However, Ched Myers (Binding the Strong Man) offers a different interpretation:

Upon whose behalf is the demon pleading? It can only be the group already identified in the conflict theme -- the scribal aristocracy whose space (social role and power) Jesus is threatening. [p. 142]

Myers also points out that the demon, by naming Jesus, "Holy one of God" attempts to gain control over Jesus -- a common theme in many folktales. The demon does not succeed.

Had Jesus come to destroy the scribal authority, which undergirded the whole Jewish social order? Myers answers, "Yes."


Myers, quoting J. Pilch ("Healing in Mark: A Social Science analysis," Biblical Theology Bulletin, 1985), suggests two approaches to illness. There is the biomedical perspective that emphasizes the diseases and cures of individuals. There is also the sociocultural perspective which takes into account relationships with other people. To give Pilch's example:

The "sickness" described in the Old Testament as leprosy is simply not leprosy at all from a biomedical perspective. But from the sociocultural perspective -- which is what the Bible always reports -- this condition called leprosy threatens communal integrity and holiness and must be removed from the community. [p. 145 in Myers]

From this Myers offers this brief observation: "Mark's Jesus seeks always to restore the social wholeness denied to the sick/impure by this symbolic order. That is why his healing of the sick/impure is virtually interchangeable with his social intercourse with them" [p. 146].

And this longer summary:

In sum, Jesus' symbolic acts were powerful not because they challenged the laws of nature, but because they challenged the very structures of social existence. To use Douglas's term, his healing and exorcism functioned to "elaborate" the dominant symbolic order, unmasking the way in which it functioned to legitimate concrete social relationships. Insofar as this order dehumanized life, Jesus challenged it and defied its strictures: that is why his "miracles" were not universally embraced. Depending upon one's status in the dominant order, one either perceived them as socially deviant (worse, heretical) or liberative.

... Even in an overwhelmingly biomedical culture as ours, what is "healthy" is still socially determined. The recent controversy surrounding AIDS demonstrates the persistence of popular myth and political epidemiology in our contemporary health care system. An even better example, which bears directly upon our reading of Mark, is the challenge of being put to traditional definitions of physical and mental "disability" by the contemporary movements for independent living in developed societies. Wheelchair-bound persons, for example, insist on equal social access, decrying paternal and oppressive social policies that keep them dependent and segregated. Similarly, many in the deaf community insist that their unique culture, centered around sign language, should be given equal respect and treatment as any verbal sign system.

In other words, there are many today who simply do not believe that their liberation is dependent upon being able to talk or walk. They insist on their right to live fully human and "whole" lives in a society that continues to define them as "handicapped" only because they are different. Nonphysically disabled readers must be aware of the biases we unconsciously bring to biblical narratives of "healing." Obviously any interpretation that stresses the biomedical definition of "wholeness" excludes the physically disabled from the good news. If, however, we focus upon the broader socio-symbolic meaning of illness and healing, the stories address us all equally. After all, in Mark the true impediments to discipleship have nothing to do with physical impairment, but with spiritual and ideological disorders: "Having eyes can you not see? Having ears can you not hear?" (8:18). [pp. 147-149, emphases in original (italics)]

This commentary provided me with a fresh understanding of this old text.


Just a quick observation. Jesus rebukes the evil spirit with the commands: "Be silent and come out of him."

The spirit does come out of the man, but it doesn't come out silently. Three words are used in Greek: "Crying out with a great cry." The spirit's leaving was a noisy event.

Throughout Mark, Jesus' commands to be silent are, for the most part, ignored.


The two words that describe the people's reactions are: ekplessomai (v. 22) and thambeo (v. 27) -- "astounded" and "amazed" in NRSV. The first term, more literally means "blown out of their minds." It comes from something that is so incomprehensible that one's mind can't fathom what has been experienced. These are not terms of faith. In Mark, miracles do not produce proper faith.

What is it about Jesus that "blew the people's minds"? A number of related possibilities exist in our text: his new teaching, his authority, the way he related to the man with the unclean spirit, he commands and the spirit obeys.

I don't believe that the supernatural events or stories would have been as shocking or troublesome to first century people as it is to us. Questioning whether or not "it really happened" wouldn't have been an issue with Mark's first readers. For them, and for us, the meaning or significance of this story is what is important.

The acceptance by Jesus and restoration of the unclean/ostracized man to the community are at least as amazing and troublesome to us, I think, as the "healing" of the individual.

Roy Oswald (Making Your Church More Inviting) has a chapter called: "Parish Norms -- Who Is Welcome in Our Congregation?" Of course, whenever he asks a congregation, "Who is welcome in this place?" the answer is "Everyone." If we are honest, congregations usually do not welcome everyone.

I recall interviewing one newcomer who told me what a wonderful, warm, and friendly congregation this was. Several interviews later, a person described the same congregation as being cold and uninviting. What made the difference? You simply had to look at these people to know the difference. One was a well-dressed, educated, articulate male; the second was a woman with probably no more than a high-school education; she was struggling economically and not well dressed. [p. 49]

Oswald gives an assignment in this chapter:

... for fun, sit for ten minutes in a shopping mall and watch people walk by. As you note specific individuals coming toward you, make a subjective judgment: Would this person receive a warm welcome in our church? You might be surprised at the number of people you identify as being less than welcome. [p. 49]

Are there types of people who, if they appeared in church, would cause members to be amazed and astonished? Should they be served communion? Could you hear some people say, "If they are going to come to our church, I'll have to stop attending" or "Pastor, you'll have to talk to them -- they will be happier in another church"?


Our text ends by saying that a "rumor" (or "report" -- "fame" in NRSV doesn't really capture the sense of the Greek, akoe). What were they saying about Jesus? We don't know. Whatever it was, it both attracted people to seek out Jesus as we will hear next week and so offended the people that they will seek to kill him. What the people saw and heard and reported to others was more than just that Jesus taught a new teaching with authority, that he had the power to exorcise demons? What Jesus said and did disrupted the world -- for some it was a good disruption. Others preferred the status quo.


There is power in words. They can make us laugh. They can make us cry. They can start our minds working overtime. They can raise our blood pressure. They can "blow our minds."

A similar power exists in actions. "A picture is worth a thousand words," we say. Actions are thousands of words. Participating in or even seeing actions can powerfully affect people.

There have been times when the words of a sermon or of a lecture has done something to me. In our Lutheran Law/Gospel dialectic, such words are to convict of sin and assure of God's forgiveness. To me, that is the essence of preaching -- to proclaim the gospel -- to announce forgiveness through Jesus. We expect our words to do something to the hearers -- primarily, for me; they are to be carriers of God's grace. I know that words can do that -- not just because a seminary professor told me so, but because I have experienced that power in my own life. Jesus can make the unclean clean; the sinful holy; the outcast a member of the community.

Brian Stoffregen
Faith Lutheran Church, 1000 D St., Marysville, CA 95901