Jesus casting out demons, unknown artist.
Mark gives us a snapshot of the first day of Jesus’ ministry. We’ve heard only a part of it. Jesus enters the synagogue and begins to preach. We are not told what he preached, but Mark notes the effect of Jesus’ words on the congregation. It leaves them astonished. This is not simple admiration. It is closer to being overwhelmed, dumbstruck, even ‘terribly shocked’, as one dictionary puts it. Part of it is simply the force of Jesus’ word, as they witness the majesty of God’s power and action. At the same time, it leaves them disturbed, as they are not sure what to make of Jesus. They instantly recognise that this is a ‘new’ teaching, not something they have heard from the Scribes. The Scribes would trace their authority to previous Rabbis and back to Moses himself. Jesus is still teaching Moses, but this is recognisably new. Yet there is evident power in his word. The question naturally becomes, where his authority come from?
The word for authority is exousia. It literally means out of (ex-) his being (ousia). This authority flows out as it were, from his own person, his own being. But what is this being? It would take centuries of reflection (and a lot of theological battles) for the Church to spell out the implications of what the gospels capture, in their own cryptic form. It would finally be defined in the fifth century, at the Council of Chalcedon.
…our Lord Jesus Christ is…truly God and truly Man; …co-essential with the Father according to the Godhead…co-essential with us according to the Manhood; …acknowledged in two Natures without confusion, without change, without division, without separation.
As Mark’s gospel opens, we have only been introduced to Jesus in his baptism by John, standing as one with the rest of mankind. Yet, the heavens are torn open and the Father’s voice is heard, proclaiming him to be his beloved Son. He is one with God, and on him the Spirit rests. Immediately after, he is challenged by Satan, otherwise known as the devil or diabolos. The diabolos is literally, the one who splits, or throws apart. And try as he might, he has been unable to split Jesus apart in any way. Even as Jesus stands as the unique Son of the Father, and among us as the Son of Man, there is a complete unity to who he is. He is not divided, separated or confused in any way. He is fully man, in all that man could be, not in spite of, but because he is fully God. And at the heart of his being, is what we see in the baptismal scene: the Father’s love. The voice of the Father is what moves him, it is there from which his authority flows.
In direct contrast to Jesus, in the synagogue, there is a demoniac, one who is possessed by unclean spirits. His cry, ‘what have you to do with us?’, reveals the presence of multiple demons in him. There are multiple voices competing for authority over his life. He has managed to stay hidden within the crowd over this time. But as he hears the voice of the One who is truly Man however, his demons manifest themselves, struggling for control before they give way. (This incident is many times explained away, even by biblical scholars as a case of mental illness. The text makes it quite clear that this was a demoniac, not least from the supernatural knowledge he has about the identity of Jesus. The underlying assumptions which drive such speculation come from the Enlightenment, not Christianity: it is the refusal to believe in the supernatural, including the existence of demons. Secondly, it is to do with an implicit arrogance, that modern man is cleverer than every other age – the ancients were not wise enough to differentiate between a simple mental illness and a demonic possession. All of which are quite false).
Having said that, however, the demoniac does bear a relation to the rest of the crowd in the synagogue, as he does to you and me. We all can be unclean in the many ways we are split, torn apart in our own lives. We can experience feeling divided between what we think and what we feel. We are not sure what we should do or how we should judge something. At other times, we know what we should do, but we are left exhausted by our varied desires pulling us in different directions. There are multiple voices trying to claim authority over us. And then, the times we do something, going against our beliefs, because we wanted to please or didn’t want to offend someone. Think also about how you make decisions on a daily basis. Where your children go to school. Where you live. What work you do. Even where you go on holiday. What you spend money on. What animates these decisions?
Your faith could inform your values – that you should be loving, kind, be forgiving and what not. But alongside there can be many other voices. The Apprentice could tell you that one should be ruthless in order to win. Your friends might tell you that life’s goal is to make as much money as possible. You might have a strong sense of commitment to your family and other relationships – the faithfulness and sacrifice it requires. But alongside it might sit an unexamined voice from Netflix which says you should never miss out on any pleasure life has to offer. Or do you not think that Netflix, the BBC and anything else you watch, even Disney, are catechising you?! They are giving you a way of interpreting the world and indeed, your life. We can be faced with situations where these multiple voices come in conflict, vying for our obedience. Then we feel torn apart, unable to move forward. Even when we do the right things it ends up being half-hearted, because we are not convinced that this is what gives us happiness. Life becomes slow, painful, purgatorial. Paul indicated the same thing when he said ‘For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.’ (Rom 7:15).
Is there a unity to how we live our lives? When there isn’t – and many times, we are not even aware of what drives us – we are left unclean, tainted by competing desires. What is the voice which informs the core of our being? That which has authority in our lives?
Kierkegaard, the Christian philosopher noted that a saint is someone whose life is about one thing. This is the goal of all spirituality. For Jesus, everything about his life was to do with the Father’s will. He knew he was loved by the Father. In the encounter with Christ, we discover what it is to be whole. On hearing His word, the spirits trying to control the demoniac all fall apart as the man realises who he is. He becomes human. This is the Word that Christ wants to speak to us. To separate what is true from what is false, to set us free. Maybe, if you don’t already do so, decide to spend a few minutes with the Bible every day, listening to the Father’s voice. This Word is life. ‘For man does not live by bread alone, but every word which proceeds from the mouth of God.’ (Matt 4:8)