“‘What’s this? A new kind of teaching backed by authority?’: Mark 1:21-28”

The Purpose of Exorcism Stories

A central theme of Mark’s gospel is the question of Jesus’ authority. As we shall see, Jesus’ opponents—along with his own followers—frequently wonder from where he derives his power. The listener/reader of the gospel knows that it comes directly from God (this is the primary purpose of Mark 1:1-3). However, in the story world, many do not have this information and, as a result, Jesus comes into conflict with various groups of people.

It is important to note that Jesus’ power is demonstrated first by the content of his teaching. The people are amazed by his words (v. 22), then by his words and deeds (v. 27), in this case an exorcism. Exorcisms are a common element in Mark’s gospel (5:1-20; 7:24-30; 9:14-29), and generally follow a predictable pattern: Jesus encounters the afflicted person, who has been overtaken by a demon (v. 23); there is a verbal exchange between the two parties (vv.24-25). resulting in an exorcizing action by Jesus; and the demon departs, vanquished by Jesus’ divine authority, leaving the previously afflicted person healed (v. 26). While a simple story type, exorcisms allow the Markan author to explore and develop several central themes.

One, Jesus is locked in a spiritual battle with the forces of evil. The demons recognize Jesus primarily because of Jesus’ altercation with Satan (recounted in Mark 1:12-13). While Mark’s gospel does not go into great detail concerning the content of the original encounter with Satan, three primary details are developed: A) Jesus remains in the wilderness for forty days and forty nights, recalling Israel’s wandering for forty years as a result of the people’s rebelling against God; here, Jesus stands as a new Israel, propelled into the wilderness so as to stun the forces of evil and allowing him to bring the message of God to an afflicted people; B) The wild beasts and angels minister to Jesus; in this way, the heavens and the natural world pay homage to Jesus, who has divine authority and has been anointed by God as both Son and Christ; Jesus stands as a new Adam (a point first developed by Paul in I Corinthians 15:45-49), a new form of humanity that represents salvation rather than alienation from God; and C) We know from the encounter in the wilderness that Satan—literally, “the adversary”—is stunned; while he is not defeated completely, he has lost the current fight; as a result, Satan’s minions—the demons and evil spirits—recognize him (v. 24).

Two, while Jesus has complete control over the evil spirits, he does not have control over human beings; therefore, turning to Jesus involves a choice, a volitional action. The people witness the power of Jesus’ words (v. 22) and deeds (v.27), and news about him begins to spread (v. 28). All the evil spirits know who Jesus is as a result of Satan’s momentary defeat, but the people do not. We will want to pay attention to how people respond to Jesus, all the while asking the same question to ourselves.

Three, Jesus does not appeal directly to the power of God. He does not invoke God’s name, an element we normally might expect in an exorcism story. Again, this shows that, for Mark, Jesus’ exorcisms are not merely performed for their own sake. The exorcisms highlight that Jesus has an authority not shared by others. How we are to understand this authority, though, remains to be seen. What should command our attention now is the setting in which the exorcism occurs: a Sabbath synagogue service in Capernaum. Biblically and historically, we know very little about Capernaum. It seems to be Jesus’ home turf, as it were, since he calls Simon and Andrew (1:16), as well as James and John (1:21) from in or around Capernaum, and in 2:1 Mark describes Jesus as being “at home” In Capernaum. The town itself—which archeologists maintain was populated by no more than 1500 people who mainly made their living from the fishing industry—lay between the territories of Philip the Tetrarch and Herod Antipas, two sons of the despotic Herod the Great.[1] That Jesus enters into a synagogue in Capernaum on the Sabbath day is not surprising; the distance between Capernaum and Jerusalem is around ninety miles as the crow flies, so weekly worship at the Temple would be impossible. Besides, it is symbolic that Jesus begins on the periphery of the empire. He starts on the outskirts, both in terms of geography and the nature of the people whom he calls (tax collectors, sinners, etc). Jesus violates the expected norms that are upheld in the synagogue and the Temple. He violates the strictures concerning clean and unclean, Jew and Gentile, male and female. And as we shall see, a good number of people question on what authority Jesus does these things.

In the end, what this pericope represents in a thematic prolepsis (flash-forward) to the whole of Mark’s gospel. What Jesus says and does represents a challenge to the status quo. Jesus will amaze people in both word and deed, but while he is understood by the demons, he will not be understood by most people, including his own disciples. Mark is able to reach out from the page and grab the reader by the metaphorical lapels, inquiring, Do you know who Jesus is, and will you follow him, even to the cross?

Siddhartha Goes to the Bodhi Tree

When we last left Siddhartha, he was abandoning the tutelage of Ālāra Kālāma. As we rejoin him, Siddhartha has his five followers in tow and joins another teacher, who is unable to satisfy the pressing questions that still gnaw away at him. Siddhartha begins to wonder if purely ascetic practice will lead to liberation from desire (tanha; thirst) and suffering (dukka). As many forest-dwelling monks believed that ascetic practices would burn off negative karma, Siddhartha dedicates himself to these pursuits. During this time he travels nude, sleeps on spikes, eats his own urine and feces, holds his breath until he almost suffers an aneurysm, and dwindles down to such a size that when he attempts to touch his stomach he feels his own spine. Yet, according to Siddhartha, he still feels the clamors of desire; his body still yearns for attention and he is more aware of himself than ever. Frustrated, he gives up ascetic practices as fruitless toward realizing the Ultimate Truth.

What if the Self that is so sacred to Hindus is part of the egotism that one must abolish in order to enter into Nothingness? Feeling that the traditional ways toward enlightenment have failed him, Siddhartha declares, “Surely, there must be another way!” What emerges is the Middle Way, a definitive aspect of Buddhist philosophy and practice.

Siddhartha, acting on his own authority, changes the traditional methods used to pursue Enlightenment. The five prohibitions forbid “unhelpful” (akusala) activities: lying, stealing, violence, intoxication, and sex. However, Siddhartha believes that one must go further and cultivate the opposites; true Enlightenment cannot be achieved through simple avoidance; one must also engage in positive practice. He therefore transforms the yama(prohibitions) into kusala (wholesome states).

The Five yama:

  1. Do not lie
  2. Do not steal
  3. Practice ahimsā (harmlessness, nonviolence)
  4. Avoid intoxicants
  5. No sexual activity

 

Siddhartha’s wholesome (kusala) states:

  1. Engage in “right talk,” and be certain everything one says is “reasoned, accurate, clear and beneficial.”
  2. Receive alms, whatever they are, with gratitude and positivity.
  3. Cultivate thoughts of loving kindness to counter any violent inclinations
  4. Be vigilant about what one puts into the body
  5. Avoid lustful thoughts

 

 

Siddhartha realizes that exposing the body to extreme ascetic practices is fruitless, and that one should work with human nature rather than fight against it. Having lived a life of sensual pleasure in the palace, as well as a life of extreme denial, he knows that neither work. As a result, his “Middle Way” arises from experience, but flies in the face of traditional Hindu beliefs.

He asks two village women, Gamo and Gatopma, to bring him kummāsa, what the sacred text Majjhima Nikāya (part of the Theravadan Pitaka) describes as “a soothing milky junket” or rice pudding. According to some traditions, this is what his stepmother made for him when he was a child, and he had been craving it for some time. Upon taking solid food, Siddhartha is abandoned by his five companions, who fear that by eschewing the ascetic lifestyle, he has abandoned the pursuit of Enlightenment. After finishing the meal, Siddhartha throws the dish in the river saying, “If I am to become a buddha today, may this dish float upstream.”  The dish floats upstream and disappears into a whirlpool, “descending down to the palace of a serpent king, where it landed on top of the dishes used by the previous buddhas, making a clicking sound.”[2] Siddhartha then journeys to “an agreeable plot of land, a pleasant grove, a sparkling river with delightful and smooth banks, and, nearby, a village whose inhabitants would feed him.”[3]

He sits down under a bodhi  (enlightenment) tree, vowing not to move until he has attained nirvāna (Nibbana), extinction of the self that leads to Enlightenment.  The god of desire, Māra, attacks Siddhartha with nine storms and the forces of ignorance, anger, and lust. He remains unmoved. Māra then sends his three daughters, Lust, Thirst, and Discontent. The women take on a variety of forms to tempt Siddhartha, but to no avail. Finally, Māra, challenges Siddhartha’s right to occupy the space under the tree; Māra says that it belongs to him.

The prince, seated in the meditative posture, stretched out his right hand and touched the earth [known as the bhumi-akramana position], asking the goddess of the earth to confirm that a great gift that he had made as Prince Vessantara in his previous life had won him the right to sit beneath the tree. She assented with a tremor, and Māra withdrew.[4]

No longer facing temptation from the forces of evil, Siddhartha is able to begin his final path toward Enlightenment.

Commentary

There are some shared elements that command our attention. Both Siddhartha and Jesus face an opponent. For Jesus, it is Satan, the “adversary,” whose minions are spirits that possess people, taking over their lives. How easy is it for us to see that these spirits are all around? The spirits of addiction and selfishness, of violence and greed? The spirits of indolence and apathy, indifference and anger? These can possess us, can cause us to thrash about in our own lives, not seeing the ways in which we are thrown off balance. Just as Siddhartha is attacked by Māra’s nine storms and the forces of lust, thirst, and discontentment, Jesus enters into a world similarly ruled. Yet, these men were able to rise above these temptations, focused on the spiritual goals for which they were destined.

We should also see that both Siddhartha and Jesus face issues of authority. Siddhartha leaves two teachers; he has five of his own followers abandon him because they do not understand how he can forsake tradition. Jesus, too, encounters those who seem flummoxed by who he is, what he does, and the manner in which he teaches. He is misunderstood, seen as a threat.

Finally, Siddhartha and Jesus both are led to a tree, and in so doing change the course of human religious history. Siddhartha sits under the Bodhi Tree and brings into the world a new way of escaping the endless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth (samsara). Jesus goes to the cross for having spoken truth to power, and in so doing sets the stage for the radical transformation of God’s covenant with human beings. As we continue to walk with Siddhartha—who is soon to transform into the Buddha—and Jesus, we will pay close attention to the ways in which they act on their own authority, but in so doing extend compassion, love, and hope to all who are open to the call.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


[1] For a full discussion of the Herodian family, see Mark 6:14-29.

[2] Lopez, 39.

[3] Majihima Nikāya 100

[4] Lopez, 40.

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