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A Tale of Two Synagogues

Sermon – 7/10/05
Dennis Lindsay
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Mark 1:21-34

The passage for today: 

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.

29 As 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.

32 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 to Christ.

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.

Slide 2 – From this floor plan of a Jewish synagogue in Capernaum dating to the first century AD, we see that it was probably about 70 feet wide and 90-100 feet in length.

If you were to enquire of anyone in Capernaum around 30 A.D. about the ‘synagogue’, this is where they would have pointed you.  It would have been quite an elegant landmark in that ancient city (slide 3).

To find the second synagogue in this story we have to do a little more ‘digging’ in the text (no archaeological pun intended!). 

In vs. 29 Mark tells us that Jesus left the ‘synagogue’ (that is, synagogue # 1) and entered into a nearby house (slide 4).  

Specifically, this was the house of Peter and Andrew.  Here Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law, and later in the evening (after Sabbath was over) he healed a number of people who were sick with all kinds of diseases and he cast out many demons.

In vs. 33 Mark tells us that the whole city ‘had gathered in front of the door’ of this house.  And this is where Greek gets to be fun!  The word for ‘gather together’ in Greek is ‘sunago’ – the root from which we get the word ‘synagogue’.  In other words, Mark is telling us that the whole city ‘synagogued’ at the door of the house where Jesus was staying.  This, I suggest, is synagogue # 2! (last slide).

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 Jesus.

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 creation.

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 get colder?

  • 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 sinners?

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!



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