Jesus was a very odd sort of Teacher (Mark 1: 21-28)

And they went into Capernaum, and immediately on the Sabbath he entered the synagogue and was teaching. And they were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes.
And immediately there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit. And 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.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying out with a loud voice, came out of him.

And they were all amazed, so that they questioned among themselves, saying, “What is this? A new teaching with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” And at once his fame spread everywhere throughout all the surrounding region of Galilee.
I was a guest recently at our local Islamic Centre, where I heard a Jewish journalist friend speak about the situation in Palestine. And it was an excellent night, and full of surprises for many of us from the church who were there, but I must admit that the biggest surprise for me personally was that as soon as the formalities had come to an end, I was confronted by an elderly veiled woman who spoke to me for at least ten minutes without taking a breath, and would have kept talking to me in this fashion for God-knows-how-long had not one of the male members of the congregation come and interrupted and dragged me away.
The woman was clearly schizophrenic, and indeed the Sheikh told me afterwards that the same woman regularly called him on the phone during the week and would speak in the same fashion to him, non-stop, until she got things out of her system, at which point she would simply hang up. Of course, I did wonder why the Sheikh hadn’t stepped in himself earlier in my case, but evidently he figured that I was used to dealing with such persons.
And he was right of course. I am not at all unaccustomed to dealing with persons with mental illness. Indeed, as I said to the Sheikh afterwards, ‘half the people in my own congregation have similar struggles’ !
No, that’s not true. But even so, we in our church community are not at all unfamiliar with dealing with persons who are deeply psychologically and emotionally disturbed, and I think it has always been that way. I suspect that spiritually and emotionally disturbed persons have always gravitated towards centres of prayer and worship where they find nurture and support, and so it should not surprise us when we read in today’s Gospel reading that when Jesus entered a synagogue the first person to approach him was somebody who was seriously ill.
And immediately there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit. And 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.”
Now of course we are told that this guy was not simply mentally ill but was struggling with an unclean spirit – some mysterious wicked force that had entered in to him and was controlling his behaviour.
I appreciate that a lot of people today believe that such talk of possession was just another way of referring to mental illness. Personally, I certainly do believe in the reality of demonic possession, though I think that the two are often difficult to distinguish, and I think they often work together – that these dark forces regularly prey upon the mentally ill. At any rate, however you understand what this guy was struggling with, one of the interesting things to note is that it’s only the crazy guy who has the insight to see who Jesus really is – “I know who you are,” he says, “You are the Holy One of God.”
And Jesus heals the guy, as we would expect. He drives the demon out of the guy, just as we would expect Him to do. Indeed, the whole scene up to this point goes exactly as we would expect it to go. Jesus enters the synagogue and there’s a crazy guy there – exactly where we would have expected to find him. Jesus and the possessed man have a confrontation, and we knew full well how it was going to turn out!
It’s like watching a showdown between Clint Eastwood and some nameless gun-slinging punk who has been hired to take him out. We know who is going to win long before their pistols are drawn. And you put Jesus and some poor demon-possessed man in the same room, and you know full-well that this synagogue ain’t gonna be big enough for the both of them, and we know which one of the characters is going to have to leave!
As I say, the whole scene goes pretty much exactly as we would have predicted … right up to the point where we hear the reaction of the crowd. Mark says “they were all amazed” (which in itself is not amazing). But then he goes on to say, “so that they questioned among themselves, saying, “What is this? A new teaching with authority!”
‘What is this? A new teaching?’ That’s a bit lame, isn’t it? It’s not what we expected. I don’t think it is what we would have said!
‘What is this?’

a new force has been unleashed in the world,
a new power is at work amongst us, to liberate and to heal?
A new sheriff is in town?
Something like that would have made sense, but ‘a new teaching’?
I wondered if this might be a mistranslation, such that the word normally used for ‘power’ might have been erroneously translated here as ‘teaching’, but when I looked it up I found indeed that the word translated here as ‘teaching’ is in fact the normal word used for ‘teaching’.
Indeed, the King James Version went one step further and translated the word as ‘doctrine’! ‘What is this? A new doctrine?’ And my immediate reaction is, ‘no, hang on there guys, there’s something a lot more dynamic going on here than the imparting of a new doctrine!’
I mean, ‘doctrine’ is the sort of thing that doctors of theology work on as they try to put together creeds that distinguish the two natures of Christ or the triune nature of God – all very useful of course, but hardly scintillating work! And so we don’t ask doctors of theology how many sick or possessed people they expect to heal through their work, just as we don’t ask someone who has performed some miraculous healing what passage they were working on when they performed it?
The two are normally at opposite ends of the spiritual spectrum, aren’t they – teachers and academics at one end, doing their boring but important work of analysing the minutiae of Scripture and tradition, and healers, deliverers, freedom-fighters and pulpit-pounding preachers at the other, more dynamic end of the spectrum. Yet somehow you get the feeling that in the mind of those who saw Jesus at work, this distinction didn’t really exist.
‘What is this? A new teaching?’ At the very least we would have to say that this is an indication of the fact that most of Jesus’ contemporaries perceived Him primarily as being a teacher.

Indeed, however else Jesus was understood – as a social activist, a trouble-maker, as a spiritual guru or as a miracle-worker, He was primarily referred to as ‘Rabbi’, which means ‘teacher’.
This is especially true in the Gospel of Mark incidentally, where Jesus is introduced at the outset as the teacher of the doctrine of the Kingdom of God:
“Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the Gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.’” (Mark 1:14-15)
This is how Jesus is introduced to us in Mark’s Gospel. He is the one who teaches us about the coming reign of God: ‘there’s a new world coming, the Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and get on board!’ This was the message of Jesus the teacher. This was His doctrine, and yes, it was new.
The ‘Kingdom of God’ was not a new concept in itself, of course, but the idea that in the work and ministry of Jesus that this new world was dawning – that was new. And the idea that this new world was open to everybody, regardless of their creed, colour, ethnic background or moral standing, and that all one needed to do to get on board was to have a change of mind and heart and jump on – that was certainly new! And it would appear that in the New Testament, this new doctrine had the power to heal!
We don’t think of doctrine as a healing force, but maybe we’ve had our perspectives skewed through over-exposure to that sort of isolated academia that fails to really engage with the mass of human society, and so remains out of touch with what is really going on in the world.
In terms of the doctrine of Jesus, His teaching and His healing and His various works of love cannot be easily separated. And so when, towards the end of this same chapter, Jesus says, “I must go on to the next town and preach there” (vs. 38), we see Him not only preaching and teaching in words but simultaneously also loving and healing and driving out demons. And so likewise when we see Jesus driving out demons in this passage the onlookers ask, “is there some new doctrine at work here?”, for Jesus’ teaching and His actions could not be easily divided.
I think we often underestimate the healing power of good teaching. Without wanting to detract in any way from the significant advances that have been made in the field of psychotherapy, I do get the feeling that the problem for a lot of us is not so much that we are struggling with deep-seated emotional problems that are the legacy of childhood traumas, but rather that we are simply confused a lot of the time.
This world is a very confusing place to live in, and we do yearn for someone who can speak to us with authority – who has a better grasp of things than we do ourselves. And I think that’s one of the reasons why we gather here each week to read again the words and works of Jesus – because we recognise in Him one who spoke with authority, unlike so many clergy and counsellors.
There was a poignant statement made by the great play write, Arthur Miller, as he reflected on the latter part of his marriage to Marilyn Monroe. He was fearing for her life, as he watched their estrangement and her growing paranoia and dependence on barbiturates. He said, “I found myself straining to imagine miracles. What if she were to wake and I were able to say, ‘God loves you, darling,’ and she were able to believe it! How I wish I still had my religion and she hers.”
Good doctrine can be a powerful healing force, and it certainly was for Jesus. The only remaining question then is, what good teaching – what doctrine – did Jesus impart to us through the healing of this demon-possessed man that we read of in the first chapter of the Gospel according to St Mark? And I think the answer is straightforward enough – He was teaching us something of the doctrine of the Kingdom of God.
For a day will come when there will be no more demonic possession – where illnesses of all sorts, physical, spiritual and emotional, will be a thing of the past. A day will come when there are no more wars, betrayal, lying and murder. and where every tear will be wiped away. The day will come when there will be no more division between truth and love, between doctrine and praxis, but Christ will be all in all and ‘the earth will be as full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea’. The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe!

First Preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, February 2009.

Rev. David B. Smith

Parish priest, community worker,
martial arts master, pro boxer,
author, father of four.

www.FatherDave.org

About Father Dave

Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four
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