In response to Jesus’ exorcism and healing, the people describe Jesus as one who preaches and teaches with “authority” (verse 22). Jesus operates on his own understanding and initiative and does not engage in the proof-texting and footnoting that would be characteristic of the scriptural teachers and experts of his day. He speaks for God among them, and they recognize the source and strength of his words and actions.
What is the nature of Jesus’ authority? It is certainly not, as Stephen Hultgren notes in his workingpreacher.org commentary, any authority underwritten by worldly power. It is, instead, the authority of the Word of God. “The only authority he had was the supreme confidence that what he did and said was God’s will and God’s truth,” Hultgren writes. “His authority lay in the sheer power of his words and in the example of his deeds. His authority lay in his living as God’s servant.” This is the only authority the Church has as well.
Hurtado describes that concern with authority as a major emphasis in Mark’s account. And he describes five dimensions to that authority: authority in his teaching, authority over demons, authority to forgive sins, authority over the temple and its administration, and authority to share his authority with his disciples, especially when it came to authority over the demons (page 26).
“The all-important issue of authority appears once again,” Malina and Rohrbaugh suggest in commenting on this text. “Persons who acted out of character with their station (honor status) at birth were cause for immediate concern in ancient Mediterranean communities. Since a craftsman’s son would not have been expected to speak in public, Jesus’ hearers are indeed amazed, perhaps even shocked. However,” they conclude, “Mark has already let the reader in on his justification for doing so by asserting Jesus’ claim to high status as the son of God” (page 181).
“The teaching and the exorcism are connected, then, since both result in amazement and acclamations about Jesus’ authority,” writes Matt Skinner. “Teaching and exorcism both have immediate effects, and both issue claims about who Jesus is. Inquiries into Jesus’ authority are inquiries into his identity.” Of course, we as readers know about his identity, but those inside the story (and those hearing it for the first time) have to wait for the final climax to be sure.
Hurtado notes that the crowds respond to Jesus’ teaching with “surprise and wonder but not with faith.” He points to several such expressions on the part of the crowd, “but in all these instances these responses are clearly meant to be seen as something less than Christian faith and true illumination about Jesus’ significance” (page 27).
Mark’s gospel makes it clear that Jesus shares the authority over demons with his disciples. He shares the power healing as well, but that discussion comes in the next scene in Mark’s drama. Here, let’s focus on the authority given to the church to name and cast out the demonic within, among and around us.
“How different from the conception of power and authority in our politics!” Hultgren wrote in 2009. “Our politicians try to manipulate us. They say one thing and do another. They use their authority for self-aggrandizement. They look for short-term gain, even if that means doing the wrong thing, rather than doing the right thing and trusting that in the long-term, history (not to mention God!) will vindicate them. Will the future be any different?”
Well, no, it hasn’t been, Professor Hultgren. Human authority seems mostly to know the way of worldly power. “Jesus’ authority and kingdom ministry invite us to imagine a different world — and to live towards it,” Hultgren concludes, and there’s obviously plenty of work left for people of faith to do.
“When the church learns again how to speak and act with the same authority,” suggests N. T. Wright, “we will find both the saving power of God unleashed once more and a similar heightened opposition from the forces of darkness” (Kindle Location 421). We can speak and act in that way, Wright notes, because we know (unlike the disciples in Mark 1) how it all turns out. “They can still shriek, but since Calvary they no longer have authority,” Wright concludes. “To believe this is the key to Christian testimony and saving action in the world that, despite its frequent panic and despair, has already been claimed by the loving authority of God in Jesus” (Kindle Location 423).
Matt Skinner notes that we have a worldview that doesn’t really accommodate shrieking demons. So, what does this text have to say to us? “At minimum,” he writes, “this passage provokes us to stop assuming that ‘the way things are’ must always equal ‘the way things have to be.’ The reign of God promises more, whether the ‘more’ can be realized now or in a far-off future.” We live in an era when the demons of racism, sexism, classism, ageism, and lots of other isms are shrieking so loud as to nearly drown out any other voices, “but since Calvary they no longer have authority.”
“Naming the demons is a way to recognize that they exist,” writes Osvaldo Vena. “We start with the big one, Unbelief: losing one’s faith in God, in life as a sacred force, and in our fellow human beings. It is the feeling that nothing can be done to solve our problems. Then,” he continues, “springing from this one, come the others in fearful company: homophobia, racism, sexism, classism, religious and ideological intolerance, violence at home and at school, poverty, militarism, terrorism, war, greed, extreme individualism, globalization, out-of-control capitalism, media-infused fear that leads to paranoia, and governmental manipulation of information. To name just a few.” Just a few — yes, we know.
The demons will fight back, both in Mark’s gospel and in our own lives as disciples. They will appear to have the last word as Jesus shrieks out on the cross. But that is not the last word for them or for us. Nonetheless, disciples need both discipline and stamina for the demonic pushback to come. For example, we can listen to the counsel of Ibram X. Kendi in How to be an Antiracist. Kendi notes that antiracism has made progress in American society. But racism has made progress too. Every time faith, hope, and love move forward, the forces of sin, death, and the devil respond. We should not be surprise by such pushback, and we should be prepared to continue the fight.
Matt Skinner frames it well in is commentary. “Where are we still amazed by Jesus’ authority, by his teachings and deeds’ potential to upend our assumptions about what’s possible? Where can we see souls set free from destructive tendencies and powers that we thought were beyond anyone’s control?” He notes, “Preachers who bring these observations to the forefront of their sermons remind congregations that Epiphany is not just about longing for and acknowledging past manifestations of Jesus’ greatness and the gospel’s power; it’s also,” he concludes, “about discovering what deserves our amazement in our current and longed-for experiences.”
This can take us to the description of “The Prophet” in Deuteronomy 18.
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.