Malina and Rohrbaugh suggest that this reading illustrates a typical Markan literary device, what we might call “sandwiching.” Jesus teaches and the crowd reacts, but in between is the story of an exorcism. The middle of the sandwich demonstrates and deepens what comes first and last in the scene. We will experience this in greater complexity in Mark’s account when we get to the healing of the woman with the issue of blood and the raising of the daughter of Jairus.
Osvaldo Vena, in his workingpreacher.org commentary, gives a more detailed structural analysis of the text, outlining the chiastic structure of the verses. This analysis confirms that the exorcism is the center of the story and provides the anchor for our interpretation and understanding of it.
“It is significant that the first scene of Jesus’ ministry…is one in which he teaches and performs an exorcism,” writes Larry Hurtado. “Both actions are emphasized in Mark’s Gospel as characteristic aspects of Jesus’ ministry and, by placing this account in the opening of Jesus’ ministry,” he continues, “Mark shows the reader immediately a representative scene” (page 26).
Hurtado notes that this and other scenes of exorcisms show some of the content and activity of God’s reign as it comes in Jesus. This reign is an attack on the powers of evil which hold people in bondage. The reign of God, as portrayed in Mark, Hurtado writes, “is God’s power (authority) in action” (page 27).
Matt Skinner aptly describes it as a “fight scene,” the first of several in Mark’s account. “Mark wants us to know, here at the outset of Jesus’ public ministry — that Jesus’ authority will be a contested authority,” Skinner writes in his workingpreacher.org commentary. “Jesus’ presence, words, and deeds threaten other forces that claim authority over people’s lives. These other authorities have something to lose.”
We see here for the first time that even though ordinary humans tend not to recognize who Jesus is, the demons get it right away. This recognition is not a statement of faith (as in trust, allegiance, and loyalty). It is, rather, an attempt to control Jesus by outing him and naming him. “Demons cry out essentially to protect themselves against Jesus,” note Malina and Rohrbaugh, “by using formulas and techniques known from magical practice” (page 181). “Jesus’ command to the demons to be silent has to do with the fact that he does not want them to name him,” adds Vena, “since in that culture the one doing the naming had more authority than the one being named.”
“Jesus’ suppression of the demonic acclamations also shows that Jesus was not interested in mere acclamation,” Hurtado writes, “and at the same time, these acclamations help establish for the reader the validity of the claims about Jesus that are made in the opening of the book (1:1) and that are integral to the Christian faith” (page 28).
As readers and listeners, we know that the demons are right, even if the disciples are still in the dark. “The name ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ encodes social information all in the region would have understood,” write Malina and Rohrbaugh, “By going on to identify Jesus as the ‘Holy One of God,’ the demon acknowledges another status for Jesus that the crowd will soon see demonstrated” (page 181).
No human “gets” Jesus in his fullness until after the Crucifixion and Resurrection. So, the new converts who hear Mark’s account in preparation for their baptism are in the same position in the story as were the first disciples. Those who witness the exorcism are impressed with Jesus’ power. They communicate his reputation to the surrounding area, but this is not a proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
The crowds don’t spread the good news about Jesus (verse 28). Mark doesn’t use the word for “gospel” here. Instead, they spread his “fame” throughout the region. This news is, Hurtado writes, “in Mark’s view, not true faith but only notoriety. This immediately begins something of a tragic note in the story,” he concludes, “while it sets the scene for the ensuing accounts of Jesus’ further ministry” (page 28).
If the Gospel were to be recited in totality as candidates prepared for their own baptisms, then this scene and those like it throughout Mark’s account would prepare those candidates for their own exorcism during the rite that still lay ahead of them that night.
In that regard, I want to reflect a bit on what I think is an important historic part of our baptismal rite, one omitted from our current worship book and practice. That element is the “Renunciation.”
We maintain that element in our ELCA rite of Affirmation of Baptism, aka Confirmation. The Renunciation fulfills the ancient function of the Exorcism in the earliest baptismal rites – the casting out of demons in order to clear a space for the Holy Spirit to enter into the heart of the new believer.
In the rite of Affirmation of Baptism, each confirmand makes a threefold renunciation of “the devil and all the forces that defy God,” “the powers of this world that rebel against God,” and “the ways of sin that draw [us] from God.” In response to the question about each power, the confirmand responds, “I renounce them” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, page 235).
I have had to explain to confirmands on a number of occasions the meaning of “renounce,” since that’s not a common part of contemporary vocabulary. I have sometimes wondered if that is also a symptom of our unwillingness to say “no” to much of anything in our lives these days – especially when it comes to the demonic forces that defy and rebel against God and distract us from our lives of discipleship.
I have often included the threefold Renunciation as the prelude to confessing together the Apostle’s Creed during the season of Lent. This helps worshippers to remember the historical function of Lent as final preparation for baptism and the ongoing function of Lent as remembrance of and recommitment to our own baptismal covenants. You could use this text from Mark as a way to introduce that practice and prepare people for such a liturgical addition in your own Lenten liturgies if you would choose to do so.
I find that this practice can remind us all that renunciation is not a one-time event but, rather, is a daily discipline. Renunciation, moreover, is not only a rejection of the authority of sin, death, and the devil in my life but also a way to cling to the forgiveness, life, and salvation given to me in the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
In a letter to Jerome Weller, written in 1530, Luther offers this consolation and encouragement. Weller was one of Luther’s most devoted students and was beset with frequent bouts of spiritual anxiety and depression. Luther notes that the attacks of the Evil One are incessant and ongoing. He urges Weller to refrain from ruminating on the temptations and rather to despise demonically inspired thoughts. “In this sort of temptation and struggle,” Luther writes, “contempt is the best and easiest method of winning over the devil” (Tappert, page 85).
If contempt is not an effective defense, Luther continues, then Weller should try pleasant distraction. Seek out the company of some happy fellows, “drink more, joke and jest, or engage in some other form of merriment,” he urges. “We shall be overcome if we worry too much about falling into some sin” (Tappert, page 86).
This might seem at first like frivolous counsel. But the power of changing one’s focus is profound. Rumination can become a deadly downward spiral of dark thoughts. Sometimes a mental and spiritual “snap of the fingers,” an emotional splash of cold water in the face is precisely what is needed to return to a healthy frame of mind. I may not be able to engage in the company of some happy fellows during The Pandemic, but I can at least take a walk.
In the end, Luther urges Weller, depend assertively on the truth of the Gospel. Here Luther speaks, as he does in the previous passages, from his deep and long battles with his own spiritual anxiety and depression. “When the devil throws our sins up to us and declares that we deserve death and hell,” Luther writes, “we ought to speak thus: ‘I admit that I deserve death and hell. What of it? Does this mean that I shall be sentenced to eternal damnation? By no means. For I know’,” Luther concludes, “’One who suffered and made satisfaction in my behalf. His name is Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Where he is, there I shall be also’” (Tappert, pages 86-87).
We come back to the name that casts out demons and gives healing and life.
References and Resources
Fredricksen, Paula. Youtube lectures at Yale Divinity School – Christian Identity, Paul’s Letters, and “Thinking with Jews.”
“GODS and the ONE GOD” — https://youtu.be/dTSR4bNlNT0
“GODS in the BLOOD” — https://youtu.be/qlO5vfOHq6U
Jones, Robert P. White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity. Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.
Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard L. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels Kindle Edition.
Skinner, Matt. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-after-epiphany-2/commentary-on-mark-121-28-3.
Tappert, Theodore G. (translator and editor). Luther: Letters of Spiritual Counsel. Philadelphia, Pa.: Westminster Press, 1960.
Vena, Osvaldo. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-after-epiphany-2/commentary-on-mark-121-28-5.
Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.
Wright, N. T. Paul: In Fresh Perspective. Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 2005.