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The Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

Readings for Sunday 28 January 2018.

The story we heard in our reading this morning from Mark’s Gospel, takes place in the synagogue in Capernaum, which provides me with the perfect opportunity, to shamelessly talk about my pilgrimage to the Holy Land. I say that, because Kim and I actually visited the site of this very synagogue!

The photo you are about to see on screen, shows the ruins of a fourth century synagogue, which was built on the ruins of the first century synagogue mentioned in our gospel reading. The next photo just gives you a view from the inside of the synagogue. And the next photo, shows stones from the first century synagogue, which have become foundation stones for the fourth century building. Jesus actually walked in the very same area where we were walking!

As mentioned, the synagogue is located in Capernaum, a town situated on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. Capernaum was a fishing village, and is believed to have had a population of around 1,500 people at the time of Jesus. We know from the Gospel of Matthew, that Jesus chose to make this town the base, or centre, of his ministry in the region of Galilee. The next few photos you are going to see, are the ruins of a first century Roman settlement in Capernaum, which give you a bit of an idea of what housing was typically like in the town Jesus’ day.

But enough of my holiday snaps! Let’s get back to our story from Mark’s Gospel. So what is the story about? Well, it essentially describes the beginning of the public ministry of Jesus, and it tells us that Jesus was both a teacher and an exorcist. But what exactly does it tell us about the teaching of Jesus? Surprisingly, Mark doesn’t provide us with any of the content of Jesus’ teaching. What he does tell us, is that his teaching was unlike anything the Jewish people in Capernaum had heard before; that it was very different to the teaching of their own religious leaders. For Mark tells us that Jesus taught with authority, unlike the religious leaders. He tells something of the power of Jesus’ teaching, which the teaching of the religious leaders obviously didn’t have. We know this because Mark tells us in v. 27 that all those in the synagogue were 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.’

It is quite likely, that the man who was possessed by the unclean spirit, had sat in the synagogue on a number of occasions and listened to the teaching of the religious leaders, but had been unaffected or unmoved by it. But as Jesus begins his teaching, it is the unclean spirit itself which is moved. It knows who Jesus is, and it tries to ward off the impending exorcism when it says:

“I know who you are, the HolyOne of God”.

It recognises that Jesus possesses the power of God, and Jesus exercises that power by commanding the spirit to be silent.

Unclean spirits, or demons, such as that mentioned in this passage, figure more prominently in Mark’s Gospel than in any of the other three gospels. Mark presents us with a picture of a world that is under the control of demonic forces, which is how the people of Israel related to the Roman occupation of their land.

If you remember our readings from the Book of Isaiah during Advent, the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple in the sixth century before Christ, and sent the people into exile. King Cyrus of Persia then defeated the Babylonians and allowed the exiles to return to Jerusalem, and even provided them with resources to rebuild the Temple. We could easily be forgiven for thinking the story ended there, with the exiles living a life of relative freedom under the Persians. However we know from history that this wasn’t the case, and Jerusalem and the former nation of Israel continued to be under the successive rule of several different foreign powers down to the time of Jesus.

Therefore the prophecies of the Book of Isaiah began to be interpreted by the Jewish people in a different way. Rather than referring to the return from Babylonian captivity in the late sixth century BCE, they began to be read in the context of a new form of captivity; that being human subjection to the demonic world. The leader of this demonic world was the prince of demons, who was variously known as “Satan”, “Belial”, or “Beelzebul”. And the Roman Empire, with its political and military powers, was viewed as being an instrument of Satan.

People at the time of Jesus were very fearful of demons and evil spirits. They believed that these spirits were always seeking ways to gain control over individuals, and one way that it was believed this happened was through food, with the spirits settling on food as people ate, and thus getting inside them. So it became quite common for food to be sacrificed to a particular god, with the belief that this god would protect people from evil spirits. This practice is at the heart of what Paul was talking about in our passage this morning from the First Letter to the Corinthians.

Corinth was a city rife with the worship of many different pagan gods, and it was difficult to buy food in the market, in particular meat, which hadn’t been sacrificed to one pagan god or another. Christians living in Corinth, believed in only one God, the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ, and for many of them, the notion of eating food sacrificed to another god was unthinkable. They would rather not eat meat at all, than risk eating meat which had been sacrificed. But some among them, who obviously knew that these pagan gods were nothing more than man-made idols, didn’t see any problem in eating such meat, because sacrificing something to a nonexistent god meant nothing at all. So there started to be division among Christians about this issue. And what Paul basically said, is that those Christians who believe there is nothing in wrong in eating meat that has been sacrificed, because they know there is no other god, should respect the belief of other Christians, and not cause them to do something against that belief. For Paul, that would be to sin against Christ.

Theologian and scholar Brendan Byrne argues, that in our world today, people seem to be the victims of various forms of “captivity” – personal, social and economic–under which they labour and seem powerless to control or escape.1 That is probably true, especially when we think in terms of people (particularly the youth of today) trying to live up to the expectations imposed on them by the consumerist and technologically driven society that we live in. They can be held captive by the image of the person they feel they need to be; by the job or career they think they need to have, by the brand of clothes and accessories they need to wear, the type of car they need to drive, and the size of the house (and the suburb) in which they need to live. The list goes on and on. Byrne believes that:

“the multiple forms of addiction that burden us as individuals and as societies, can be seen as manifestations of the demonic”.

‘Just then 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 with a loud voice, came out of him.’ (Mk. 1:23–26).

Jesus liberated the man in the synagogue in Capernaum from captivity to an unclean spirit. And Jesus can liberate people today, from all the various forms of captivity they are victims of.

All it takes, is faith.

The Lord be with you.

Reference:
1 Brendan Byrne, A Costly Freedom: A Theological Reading of Mark’s Gospel,
(Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2008), xii.

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