The Gospel reading for Epiphany 4 highlights the very first public act of Jesus’ ministry in the Gospel of Mark. Jesus went to the synagogue to teach. And all at once, the people in the congregation’s ears started to perk up. They sat up straighter, and began to hang onto his every word. The passage says they were “astounded” at his teaching. Jesus taught with authority. An authority that they had not seen in the Scribes, the ones who normally taught on the Sabbath. Of course, Mark doesn’t tell us what Jesus said, but I think that’s, at least in part, the point of the story. Mark isn’t interested in letting us know what Jesus actually said in his teaching. It’s not that His words weren’t important. But, as is often said of Mark, His Gospel is a gospel of action. Mark wants us to pay close attention to what is happening and what Jesus is doing in this passage.
It should come as a shock to us, I would think, that in Jesus’ very first act of ministry, that he should be interrupted by a man possessed. What are the chances that in his very first teaching moment something so disruptive would happen? But then again, we are talking about Jesus, the Holy One of God. And as we take a second glance at this story in Mark, perhaps it’s not at all surprising that the unclean spirit residing in the man in the back of the synagogue became so agitated. Jesus had come into its territory and onto its turf, and so the spirit asked the obvious questions: “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” Another way to phrase this: “Why do you meddle with us?”
What strikes me about these questions that are posed to Jesus is that it is not altogether clear who the “us” is that the demon is referring to when he says: what have you to do with us? Is he talking about “us” demons, who existed during Jesus’ time? Or perhaps there is a different “us” that the man is referring to. Personally, I think we can read the “us” and see ourselves in those questions. When Jesus enters into our own lives, there is a part of him coming into our lives that involves conflict. Because sin has a foothold in all of our lives in various ways, and we have all become accustomed to our sin and to our self-serving ways. We like the Jesus who loves everyone and heals the sick, but as soon as he starts meddling in our own lives, that’s where we draw the line. This is the part of the Incarnation that we, if we are honest with ourselves, have a harder time with. This is where we begin to utter things like: What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Why do you meddle with us?
Of course this is precisely what Jesus came into this world to do, to root out the sin in our lives, to cast out the powers and principalities that have laid hold on our lives, and to call into question the oppressive and destructive systems and structures in our world. Jesus came into this world with an authority that the people had never seen before. It was different, there was something in the very nature of his authority that made it true. And I actually think our New Testament reading from 1 Corinthians helps us understand the nature of his authority. In verse 1, Paul says simply: “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” Paul was calling out the Christians who knew, who had the knowledge that it didn’t matter if they ate food that had been sacrificed to idols. There were other Christians who still were afraid to do so, because it wasn’t allowed in their previous religious practices. They thought that they would be doing something wrong. And so the in-the-know Christians were becoming prideful in their knowledge, and becoming puffed up with it. The same could be said of the scribes and leaders of Jesus’ own time. If we want to talk about the difference between Jesus’ teaching with authority and the scribe’s teaching, it may be as simple as this: Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.
As we reflect on this season of Epiphany and on Jesus mission on this earth, and as we reflect on what it means to be the church on mission – I think it is important to reflect on what it means teach, to speak, to live and to love with the authority that Jesus had. Two questions come to mind:
- What are the things that God wants to meddle with in your life? Are you giving him space to rework and renew you?
- How is your life, your ministry, your faith live out towards others marked by a love that builds up?