Monday, February 1, 2021

At Capernaum

In the gospel this morning, we encounter Jesus early in his public ministry entering the synagogue in Capernaum. As an adult male member of the community, he follows the custom of the time and takes his turn at teaching those gathered there. Interestingly, we are not told that his audience is impressed with his learning, but only that they marvel at the authority with which he speaks. Unlike the scribes, who gave insight and answers based on biblical and other traditional precedents, Jesus speaks clearly and directly in what might be described as a prophetic manner. In other words, his authority rests solely on God’s claim on his life; he makes appeal to no other source or authority.

In commenting on this passage, Michael Casey makes a key observation that I’d like to focus on this morning. He says in Fully Human, Fully Divine:

The evangelist has interwoven two themes which at first sight may seem to us unconnected. The power which Jesus manifests in expelling the demon is deployed through the instrumentality of his teaching.

The reaction of the bystanders to the miracle is significant: “What is this thing? This is a new teaching with power so that he subdues unclean spirits, and they obey him.” Notice that not a word is said about the beneficiary of the miracle, nor about the exorcism itself. When the crowd remarks on the newness of Jesus’ teaching, they are not referring to any novelty in its content. Rather, as Michael Casey puts it:

The wonderment is directed towards the new teaching which is a channel of contact with the wonder-worker, and mysteriously purifies those whom it touches from demonic influence . . . In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus’ ‘teaching’ was a matter of an ongoing and lasting relationship, closer to personal formation than to the mere communication of information or knowledge. 

But what do we imagine Jesus was teaching on this occasion? Probably it had to do with purity codes, a favorite topic of scribal discussion. The particular context this morning is a man with an unclean spirit. Now, it was commonly believed that a person could become not just tormented but defiled by contact with an unclean spirit. In fact, the simple presence of the unclean spirit in the synagogue would contaminate the entire synagogue. And so, the standard scribal advice was avoidance: people were holy to the degree they kept their distance from what was unholy – whether it be certain actions, foods, or people. Simply to be in the presence of someone possessed by an unclean spirit was to become impure; and hence, scribal teaching was: “Steer clear!”

The unclean spirit knows this and counts on it. But it senses something different in Jesus. So it asks, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?”  It knows that Jesus is the Holy One of God and that it is unthinkable that God’s Holy One would risk defilement. So the implication of the question is that Jesus should stay away.

But Jesus does not respect purity boundaries. He trespasses them. The false theology of the unclean spirit, its only hope to continue its vicious domination of God’s good creation, is silenced. Mark tells us: Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!”  With that command, that whole way of thinking, rooted in ineffectual fear, is over. A new teaching is being articulated, and it comes into existence with power and authority. Convulsing and screaming, the unclean spirit leaves the man. It does not go willingly. It has not been argued into submission. It has not met its match. Rather, a higher authority has appeared and will be obeyed. The people are amazed because they have seen another way to deal with the fear of impurity. Do not avoid it; bring your own stronger purity to it and cleanse it. This teaching is indeed new.

What can all this mean for us this morning, who are not in the Capernaum synagogue but in this abbey church? Surely the story of the exorcism serves as more than an account of Jesus’ mercy and compassion towards a tormented individual. The people in the synagogue would recognize here an eschatological sign, for they knew that the eschaton or “end time” was to be marked by Yahweh’s definitive conquest of evil. All the evangelists point to this concretely again and again when Jesus confronts evil wherever it is lodged – in sickness, demonic possession, natural upheaval, or death. As Jesus repeatedly cures the afflicted, evil in its various forms is vanquished.

I would suggest, then, that the Good News this morning is that Jesus in his teaching makes himself known as the authoritative victor over evil – over our sins, our demons, over all chaos and evil. With the authority of the Holy One of God, with the authority of the Son of God, he also speaks to our hearts as we struggle with whatever our particular demons may be. He never leaves us alone in our darkness, but invites us to believe that through his life, death, and resurrection he has indeed already overcome our guilt, shame, fears, and tendency to run away from evil in our lives. Yes, probably most of us tend to be avoiders, but he speaks a saving word with an authority that means nothing less than eternal life. He asks us only to believe and trust in him. So often he asks his disciples: “Why were you afraid?” And appearing to them many times after his resurrection, his first words invariably are: “Do not be afraid.” Truly, he is more than a prophet who bears God’s effective word. The opening verse of the Letter to the Hebrews tells us: “In times past, God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets; in these last days, he spoke to us through a Son” (Heb 1:1).

As I reflected on today’s Gospel, St. Anthony of the Desert came to mind, for in tomb and fortress and wilderness over a lifetime he faced demonic adversaries and the conflicts of his own heart with an intensity we probably can’t imagine—and yet he came to believe that he could not be harmed by any opponent of Christ, precisely because Christ’s victory over demons, sin, and death was already his. As an old man encouraging young monks in the desert to be at peace and unafraid in all circumstances (especially when tempted or tormented by demons), he taught them that it was his faith in Christ’s victory over evil that made him fearless and serene, and in turn, created almost comic panic in the demons who live off human anxiety. Rather than succumb to fear, we too should marvel at the “authority” of the Lord, the Word who constantly visits and heals us in his teaching. I think Michael Casey captures the Good News of this morning’s Gospel exquisitely when he says:

Nobody else can reproduce the power inherent in Jesus’ teaching. Jesus was for his disciples and can be for us, a teacher who imparts himself rather than some external knowledge or expertise. His words reach out to heal what is wounded and defective in us. They are our salvation—our means of access to the divine sphere: “The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (John 6:63). P

hotograph by Brother Brian. Homily by Father Dominic for the Fourth Sunday of the Year.