Gospel reflection for Jan. 31, 2021, Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

It might be startling that it is the demons who first recognize Jesus, Son of God, at the synagogue in Capernaum. While Mark does not give us a time frame as to the transition from Jesus’ first appearing on the scene proclaiming the coming of the Kingdom of God and the event about which we hear in this account of his teaching, we might well expect that it all happened fairly quickly.

Likely, the people identified Jesus with the Baptizer and his movement and found his teaching interesting from the beginning. In order to hear the preaching of the Baptizer, one had to go to the wilderness to seek him out. Jesus, instead, comes to the people. He begins at the shore of Lake Tiberius (Sea of Galilee) and the many small towns dotted along the coast. Capernaum, the home of Peter, Andrew, James and John was a bustling village of fishermen. There, within sight of the lake stood the synagogue, the religious center of the community.

Jesus has attracted enough attention already to be invited to speak to the assembly on this Sabbath day. As the synagogue rituals of that time were less formal than they are today, inviting this new itinerant teacher to speak would not have been unusual. Synagogues were more of a place for an open discussion then, an opportunity for learning and conversation. Typical, though, of the teaching style, would have been the conversation about the Scriptures through the lens of the Talmudic traditions of the past. Even the most seasoned rabbis were experts in traditions, but very few of them had the learning, wisdom, and the standing within the community, to actually contribute to the tradition through their own teaching.

The expectations, then, would be that Jesus would be to offer insight into the Kingdom of God, and perhaps to further develop the teaching on repentance in the eschatological vein of the Baptizer. That Jesus would sidestep all of the above and teach a more radical message, one lacking the citation of the Talmud or the great teachers of the past, startles the crowd. Mark notes that Jesus “taught with authority.” We take this style of teaching from Jesus for granted, and have gotten used to hearing Jesus say things such as, “Amen, Amen, I say …”; or “You have heard it said, but I say …”, but that was radical and unheard of in his time, an approach that was open to criticism from the scholars of the Law, and a breath of fresh air to those who had listened to him.

The people are in awe of Jesus. A man who is possessed by a demon recognizes Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God. The demon places a distance between himself and Jesus, and tries to disparage and dismiss Jesus as insignificant, and as having nothing to do with him. The conversation between Jesus and the demon takes place almost as an aside within the event. The assembled are aware of a possessed man, but they know nothing of the encounter between Jesus and the demon. All they hear is the convulsion of the demon as it is being expelled. Jesus, then, performs his first miracle: exorcising the demon just at his Word. This was something else unimaginable to the assembled. Not only does Jesus teach with authority, he acts with authority.

There is a back story, one that is also being prepared for, but which Mark is silent on here. It will be the officials of the synagogue – the rabbis and any of the more established members of the religious authority who are not only unimpressed with Jesus – they are suspicious of him. Note that this occurs on a Sabbath day, a day when work was forbidden. And, while Mark does not make note of that here, acting on the Sabbath will become a contentious issue between Jesus and the Jewish officials later on in his ministry.

Now, with John imprisoned, and the clear spiritual hunger of the people, Jesus with his new teaching and miraculous healings, is on the path to become way too popular. This is not going to set well with the officials.

Mark continues to set us up for the rejection of Jesus and his message, while yet demonstrating the power of his Word, his authority, and his appeal to the people of the Galilee.

Father Garry Koch is pastor of St. Benedict Parish, Holmdel.