29 January 2012
Capernaum, meaning ‘village of Nahum’, on
the north-west shore of the Sea of Galilee,
is where Jesus went to live after leaving Nazareth
23 miles away, and so is said by St Matthew
[9,1] to be Jesus’ ‘own town’. At a crossroads
on the main imperial highway to Damascus, it
was a busy commercial and fishing centre with
a customs post. Much of Jesus’ Galilean ministry
took place there; it was one of the Galilean
towns he cursed for its unbelief [Matthew 11,23].
The ruins of the city include the ruins of a
synagogue built after 200 AD on the site of
that in which Jesus prayed and spoke and which
had been built by a Roman centurion. Also found
there are the remains of an early church built
on the site Peter’s house.
The word ‘synagogue’ derives from ‘assembly’
in Greek. It was a meeting place for prayer
and for religious instruction which originated
during the exile in Babylon. It was run by lay
elders; services were conducted by members of
the congregation who showed great courtesy to
guests, often inviting them to speak or to comment
on a reading, as Jesus was. The synagogues were
important for the early teaching of Jesus and
later that of St Paul. The liturgy of the Mass
(especially the prayers, singing of psalms and
the readings in the Liturgy of the Word) derives
from synagogue worship. The presence of God
and sacrificial worship attached only to the
Temple in Jerusalem.
Mark is more interested in the effect of the
teaching of Jesus than in what he said. He mentions
Jesus’ teaching four times but does not tell
us what he teaches; only that it is new. Mark’s
gospel is a gospel of action rather than teaching.
The scribes did all sorts of jobs: writing documents,
lawyers, teachers, etc., and were acknowledged
experts on the Jewish Law. They became very
hostile to Jesus. Jesus speaks with more authority,
and we know why this is so—because Mark has
already told us who he is. The demons also know
his identity, but Jesus silences them because
he does not want his identity revealed at this
stage. There is no sign that those present hear
the unclean spirit, or that they are surprised
at the exorcism. ‘Unclean’ here means the opposite
of ‘holy’, as God is holy. The authority of
Jesus is given emphasis by the fact that he
performs no ritual nor does he even touch the
man. He does not threaten but the spirit feels
under threat and resists.
• It was thought in ancient times that the
world was peopled by spirits of many kinds,
most of them threatening. At the time of Jesus
religion was very much concerned with liberation
from these powers and so exorcisms were not
uncommon. King Solomon was believed to have
been an exorcist and there were many other
accounts of exorcisms. We still speak of ‘being
in low spirits’. We enjoy criticising others,
running them down. Each of us wishes to be
‘the boss’. Are there forces at work in me
that sometimes seem beyond my control?
• Last Sunday we saw that the authority of
the Word of Jesus was so great that people
abandoned their occupations to follow him.
Today his teaching is more powerful than that
of the scribes. Even demons cower before him.
People were amazed at the drama of it all.
Yet the only effect seems to have been to
give Jesus a reputation. Mark does not say
that anyone believed as a result. He has told
us who Jesus is. Even so, do I wonder about
the exorcism rather than recognise his authority?
How might Mark have expected me to react if
I had been there?
• The action takes place on the Sabbath,
when people meet to give thanks for what God
has done. Another reason for the Sabbath was
to give a day of rest in the week, just as
Church holidays were in part meant to give
workers a holy day/ holiday. Do I appreciate
the idea of freedom suggested by the Sabbath
and carried forward in the setting free of
the man possessed of the unclean spirit?
• “Here is a teaching that is new”. Its newness
antagonised the scribes who joined forces
with the high priests and elders to bring
about the arrest and execution of Jesus. On
the other hand its newness attracted ordinary
people, and especially those at odds with
the social scale. The way Jesus taught must
have brought them answers to the problems
that beset them. Do I find it so with me?
If I don’t, what advice should I give those
who, as ‘modern scribes’, are charged with
interpreting that teaching for us in our circumstances?