Column: Jesus subdues demon, establishing his authority

by Father Mike Stubbs

All teachers, at one time or another, have had to deal with a disruptive student, one who speaks out in class or in some other way interferes with the process of learning.

Those teachers might take comfort in the fact that Jesus also had to deal with disruptive behavior as he was teaching. We see that happening in Sunday’s Gospel reading, Mk 1:21-28.

The story takes place in the synagogue at Capernaum, on the Sabbath. Jesus is
speaking and has definitely impressed the crowds: “The people were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes.”

All of a sudden, a man speaks out, who is described by the Gospel as being possessed by a demon: “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!”

This is clearly an attempt to sabotage Jesus’ lesson. Beyond the disruptive nature of the outburst, notice the specifics of the man’s words. He addresses Jesus by name. He further claims to know Jesus’ true identity, the Holy One of God. By using that title, he is not making any attempt to honor Jesus. On the contrary, he is asserting control over Jesus. This is a hostile action against Jesus.

In the ancient world, knowledge about a person, especially the person’s name, was thought to lead to control over that person. We have something analogous when, in our efforts to protect ourselves from identity theft, we keep secret our PIN and other personal information. Knowledge of those things can lead to control over a person’s life. In an exorcism during the time of Jesus, the exorcist would often employ the demon’s name against him, to gain power over the demon.

In the Gospel story, the demon is engaged in a preemptive strike against Jesus by revealing Jesus’ identity. Admittedly, the name “Jesus of Nazareth” would have been common knowledge. On the other hand, “the Holy One of God” would have been a hidden aspect of Jesus’ identity, not yet even known to Jesus’ disciples.

As a supernatural being, the demon would have had access to that information about Jesus. The demon also believes that this information about Jesus will provide control over Jesus and aid the demon in his battle with Jesus.

But the demon is wrong. Just as Jesus’ authority made him a better teacher than the scribes, so also his authority leads to victory over the demon.

Notice that the Gospel story never mentions the content of Jesus’ teaching. That does not matter as much as his authority as a teacher, which, like his authority as an exorcist, stems from his identity as the Son of God.

Unlike the demon, the crowds may not have access to Jesus’ secret identity, but they clearly recognize that Jesus is a force to be reckoned with: “All were amazed and asked one another, ‘What is this? A new teaching with authority. He commands even the unclean spirits and they obey him.’”

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