Thursday, January 18, 2018

Astounding Authority

Mark 1:21-28, the gospel lesson appointed for the 4th Sunday after Epiphany, is a continuation of the rapid-fire narrative Mark has set up by announcing that the heavens have been torn open, the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.  Because the reign of God has begun, all sorts of amazing things are happening.  It is the melting of the snow in Narnia.  It is the emergence of crocuses from the ground in the spring.  It is resurrection for the world.  What could be greater!

(The following questions have been developed as a method for understanding some of the most basic concerns of Law and Gospel preachers.  They are not meant to be exhaustive.  My brief guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, is available from or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  The Word, in this case Jesus, functions to announce that no power, specifically no demonic power, has authority over Jesus.  The unclean spirit recognizes Jesus' authority immediately and begs to be spared, but Jesus shows his authority by casting the spirit out.  This is a gospel function, announcing the good news of Christ's authority.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  A word of Law, which exposes our need for a Savior, is hard to find in this text.  Certainly the unclean spirit is evidence of spirits at work in the world who oppose Christ, but no one in the story is lifted up as in need of Christ.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We must, as always, identify with those whom the Word addresses; so, in this case, we are the man with the unclean spirit.  Or perhaps we are the unclean spirit itself, trying to protect ourselves from the claims of Jesus.  Perhaps we can imagine ourselves asking Jesus, if not in so many words, "Have you come to destroy us?" as we wrestle with the claims Jesus makes on us to "come and die." (Bonhoeffer)

4.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  It is clear that the situation presented here is a matter of life and death, so our couplet should reflect that.  Some ideas:  dying/made alive; in bondage/set free; living under the kingdom of Satan/living under the kingdom of the Son.

5.  Exegetical work:  The Greek Bible is most revealing here, as we see the presence of the word 'euthys' not once, but three times.  This is the word translated in verses 18 and 20 as "immediately" but in this section it is either omitted completely (verses 21 and 23), or translated "at once".  In doing this the reader is left unaware of the continuing frenzied pace of this narrative.  It seems to me that all this immediacy is a direct result of the heavens being torn open and God's reign beginning.  It is appropriate that things are happening immediately.  Another word which is present more than once in this reading is the word exousia, translated 'authority.'  According to Kittel's discussion around this word, this is the power to change things, to create, to destroy, to effect change, "to end life as we know it."  Kittel ties this word to the reign of God when he notes that "a special feature in this exousia is that it is inseparable from the proclamation that the kingdom of God is near." (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. II, p. 566)  Another perspective that is helpful in understanding this story is that of narrative criticism.  In the appendix to his book, What is Narrative Criticism?, Mark Allan Powell, asks a series of questions about the event, characters, setting, and overall interpretation of the event in a text.  One question he asks is "What conclusions can be drawn about the role this event plays in the overall story?" (p. 104)  In answer to that we note that this event is establishing Jesus' authority early-on.  This means that he will have conflicts with other authorities in the days ahead.  Powell's method is well worth pursuing in narrative texts like these.

6.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  In his analysis of this text, Fred Niedner does something rarely seen; he shows how we are mortified both as people caught in the Law's grip, and as people put to death and raised again in the death and resurrection of Christ.  He identifies the way we resist this death, but how finally it is what saves us.  Go to study to see the analysis archived under the 4th Sunday after the Epiphany.

Blessings on your proclamation!

No comments:

Post a Comment