The passage for
They went to Capernaum;
and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22They
were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having
authority, and not as the scribes. 23Just then there was in their
synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24and he cried out, ‘What
have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy
us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.’ 25But Jesus rebuked
him, saying, ‘Be silent, and come out of him!’ 26And the unclean
spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him.
27They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, ‘What
is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean
spirits, and they obey him.’ 28At once his fame began to spread
throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.
soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and
Andrew, with James and John. 30Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed
with a fever, and they told him about her at once. 31He came and took
her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she
began to serve them.
That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or
possessed with demons. 33And the whole city was gathered around the
door. 34And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and
cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak,
because they knew him.
I am intrigued by the
rather matter-of-fact way that Mark tells us about a man possessed by an
unclean spirit attending synagogue in Capernaum on the Sabbath – the
place of worship on the day of worship.
Does that not strike
you as odd – especially if you were to replace the word
“synagogue” with its synonym “church”?
When was the last
time you experienced something like this at Church: someone possessed by
a demon standing up and crying out in your worship service in opposition
I think that Mark
wants to capture our attention and perhaps even challenge our
understanding of what it means first of all to be possessed by an
unclean spirit, and second, what it means to be a part of Christ’s
‘synagogue’ – a part of Christ’s church. Indeed, if we
look closely at the text, we see that Mark presents us with a scenario
of two contrasting ‘synagogues’ in the city of Capernaum.
The first synagogue
(slide 1) is fairly straightforward. It was the structure where
the Jews in the city would gather for worship.
If we compare these
two synagogues there are a number of differences we could point out.
First, look at how
large and prominent the first synagogue is, in comparison to how the
second synagogue could have taken place. One synagogue appears
very formal and the other very spontaneous. One synagogue is very
elegant, the other, fairly humble. In the first instance, Jesus
goes to the synagogue; in the second instance the synagogue comes to
But perhaps the most
significant difference that we find in this text has to do with the
people who actually gather at each of the synagogues. Mark tells
us that the “whole city” gathered together at the door of the house
where Jesus was. Now, on the one hand, this is obviously an
exaggeration, as you can clearly see from the aerial view of ancient
Capernaum. The houses are small and the streets are narrow; there
is no way that the ‘whole city’ could physically have gathered in
front of the door. The point rather is that this place of
gathering is a public place. Anyone and everyone in the city of
Capernaum could gather here, legally and without censure. Jews and
Gentiles alike; men and women and children; slave and free; healthy and
sick; gay and straight; clean and unclean. No one is excluded from
this synagogue – it is open to the whole city.
By contrast, the
first synagogue – even though it had a much greater seating capacity
– was generally exclusive. It was a place of ‘privilege’,
where only a certain group of people would actually have felt at home
and where others would have been allowed to enter only as second class
citizens, or perhaps not allowed to enter at all. Women, for
instance, would have been relegated to side passage or a back room and
not allowed in the main assembly hall. They would have been
standing in this second-class gallery along with any curious or pious
non-Jews who dared to enter. Sick people would have been
discouraged from entering, as would anyone who was considered a
‘sinner’ or ceremonially unclean – precisely the very people whom
we see freely gathering at the second synagogue.
In fact, the only
ones that we see explicitly welcome in both synagogues are persons who
are possessed by unclean spirits or demons! But even here there is
a significant difference: in the first synagogue we get the impression
that the man with the unclean spirit was generally allowed (by everyone
but Jesus) to speak freely, while in the second synagogue the demons are
not allowed to speak at all!
Which brings me back
to my initial fascination with this story in Mark’s gospel: why was a
man with an unclean spirit allowed to speak in the synagogue. For
that matter, why was someone with an unclean spirit even allowed to
enter the synagogue? This is particularly amazing, given the
strong sense of ritual purity in the pious Jewish community and their
separation of clean and unclean!
Who was this man,
what was the unclean spirit that possessed him, and what in heaven’s
name was he doing speaking up in the synagogue?! Let me suggest
one possible solution to this riddle:
First, Who was this
man? I would suggest that he was NOT an outsider, but rather a
regular, established, acknowledged member of the Capernaum Synagogue.
I don’t think he was some weirdo that just happened to wander in off
the streets, creating a chaotic sacrilegious demonstration in the midst
of an otherwise pious and worshipful gathering. I think he was
likely a respected member of the synagogue.
This would help us to
answer the other part of the riddle: “Why was he allowed to speak in
the synagogue?” As a regular member of the synagogue, he had
every right to speak up – especially if he recognized some impending
danger for the synagogue. Notice what this man with the unclean
spirit says: “What do you have to do with US, Jesus of Nazareth?
Have you come to destroy US?!” He is not talking only about
himself (“me”). Neither is he talking about Jesus destroying a
plurality of demonic powers. (“Unclean spirit” is singular,
not plural!) The ‘us’ that he is talking about is the
collective ‘us’ of the Capernaum synagogue and his voice and protest
have to do with the collective voice and collective protest of his
fellow synagogue members as Jesus poses a real threat to their
collective understanding. This man in the synagogue is speaking
not ‘out of place’ but ‘out of privilege’ – the kind of
privilege people claim for themselves when they want to practice,
propagate, and protect an exclusive religious community – a community
that discriminates against outsiders, a community that denies privilege
to those outside whom they deem undeserving of privilege – especially
anyone whom they are able to write off as a sinner.
And this, I think,
helps us to sort out the third piece of the riddle: what exactly was the
unclean spirit that possessed this man? Let me suggest to you that
this man was no ‘closet demoniac’ who all of a sudden ‘came out’
in some odd and frightening way when Jesus entered the synagogue.
This is not an instance of a hidden, dark side of someone everyone
‘thought they knew’ suddenly coming to light. It’s not the
case of some innocent little Jewish boy suddenly transformed into a
demonic imp at the sight of Jesus, as Mel Gibson so perversely portrayed
last spring on the silver screen. This demonic voice is the common
voice of privilege and the common voice of prejudice shared by everyone
whose limited understanding of God and of God’s grace stands as a
guarded basis for excluding outsiders from an open welcome into the
synagogue of God. It is the common voice we hear every day,
everywhere in the world, in every synagogue of self-selected souls
seeking to save, seeking to preserve their own exclusive privilege over
against the needs, the desires, the welfare of the rest of God’s
In other words, the
‘spirit’ that compels this man to speak out in the Capernaum
synagogue is not necessarily one that would have been considered
‘unclean’ by all is fellow synagogue members. His ‘voice’
did not sound demonic to them, because they shared his basic fears and
concerns as they were being faced with the ‘Jesus challenge’.
Can you imagine how
this voice might sound in one of our modern-day synagogues, better known
to us as churches?
What do you do
with a Jesus who says share your extensive wardrobe with people who
don’t have enough clothes to keep them warm as the days begin to
What do you do
with a Jesus who says sell your luxury cars and your gas-guzzling
SUV’s and give the proceeds to St. Vincent de Paul because there
are more and more people living below the poverty level each day?
What do you do
with a Jesus who says love your enemy who flies civilian-loaded
airliners into your collective icons of material and military
prowess – do not return evil for evil?
What do you do
with a Jesus who might challenge an opulent Western lifestyle that
chokes its own inner cities with the lack of clean air, that poisons
its own rivers and lakes for the sake of cheap energy and industry,
and that dines to the point of obesity and clothes itself in luxury
often at the expense of the poorest peoples of the world.
What do you do
with a Jesus who says that prostitutes, drug addicts, tax
collectors, non-Christians, and whomever else you wish to label as a
“sinner” – that these people are closer to God’s kingdom
than are the members of Christian communities that exclude these
Jesus of Nazareth,
have you come to destroy us?!
Oh yes! You’d
better believe that Jesus has come to destroy the demonic voice of
privilege and prejudice! Just take a look at synagogue # 2.
And as you look at
synagogue number two, take heart. For even those who are possessed
and driven by the demons of privilege and prejudice are also welcome
here; they’re just not allowed to speak! They enter the
synagogue of Jesus on the same basis as everyone else: sicknesses are
healed and demons are driven out at the door, and the whole city is
welcome to come together at the door of Jesus. And no prejudice is
permitted; no exclusive privilege is exercised for the advantage of some
and to the disadvantage of others. All are equal in standing as
they stand together before the door of Christ’s synagogue.
Oh, and one other
important thing about this particular unclean spirit of privilege and
prejudice. For all the pious protest of self-preservation, for all
the kicking & screaming, for all the hysterics and theatrics
(“Theater”, as the Germans would say!), for all the concern about
destruction when these demons are challenged, Luke’s account of this
story adds one detail about the man with the unclean spirit in the
synagogue: “When commanded by Jesus, the demon came out of the man
without injuring him.”
Thanks be to God!