By Alan Bean
This week the Mustard Seed Conspiracy study is examining Jesus’ brief ministry in Capernaum as described in the Gospels of Mark and Luke. In Luke, this material follows immediately on the heels of Jesus’ rejection in his hometown of Nazareth. This is important for two reasons. In Nazareth Jesus announced his agenda using the ancient words of Isaiah 61: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor; he has sent me to proclaim release to the captives.” Now, in Capernaum, he makes good on his promise.
Luke also uses the Nazareth-Capernaum contrast to make a second point: a prophet may be without honor in his own town, but the strangers down the road get it immediately.
The recurring theme of the Capernaum passages is authority. Jesus takes authority over Shakespeare’s “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”: the “unclean spirits of disease and disability (physical and mental).
And Jesus takes authority over his audience–he has no interest in keeping the customers satisfied.
Let’s start with the unclean spirits. On 23 occasions in the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus casts out unclean spirits (also referred to as demons). There is something unseemly about these unclean spirits. They twist their victims into grotesque shapes and exit the body with horrifying shrieks. Why, we ask, couldn’t Jesus quietly heal people?
John’s Gospel was written a few decades after Mark, Luke and Matthew. Jesus doesn’t cast out any demons in John. Apparently, our discomfort with unclean spirits started early.
Why do Mark, Matthew and Luke give so much attention to these strange encounters between Jesus and the unclean spirits?
The answer is found in the “we know who you are” statements the unclean spirits make as they are forcibly wrenched from their victims. If God is good and loving, we ask, why are his creatures so vulnerable to afflictions of body and mind? The Gospels don’t try to answer this question, but they make it clear that sickness, whether physical or mental, is both contrary to the will of God and an affront to the glory of God. When Jesus comes into contact with unclean spirits of human infirmity he takes authority over them: he rebukes them, he binds them, he casts them out, he reduces them to silence.
First, Jesus takes authority over an unclean spirit while a worship service is in full swing. Demons in church, you ask? Most certainly.
Jesus didn’t care much for the cleanliness laws of the Pharisees. He flouted these regulations left and right and encouraged his disciples to do the same. But there was a kind of uncleanness Jesus couldn’t abide–the kind that hurts people. It had to stop. Immediately. And Jesus made it stop, even if it distracted the worshippers from their pious obligations.
Unclean spirits don’t tempt us to do naughty things; they break us down in mind and body. That’s the kind of demon Jesus comes against with Messianic authority.
“What is this?” the people ask. “A new teaching–with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”
Not surprisingly, “his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.”
And this is where we see a second kind of authority–the kind Jesus exercises over his audience. This is no vaudeville minstrel, smiling and prancing to delight the crowd. The Spirit of the Lord has anointed him to preach, so he preaches. The Spirit of the Lord has anointed him to proclaim release to the captives, so the captives are released. Jesus is motivated by the Spirit’s call. We may be impressed; we may not. Jesus does what he was called to do.
Even before Jesus had worked a single miracle, the people were amazed by his words, “for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.”
Most contemporary preaching is geared to the prejudices and preferences of the audience. Some preachers practice a “rabbit in the bushes” style of homiletics. You preach randomly until something gets a response from the congregation, then you give them more of the same. The preacher is desperate for a positive response for his future depends on it.
Television has only magnified the problem.
Jesus wasn’t a rabbit in the bushes preacher. He proclaimed the message he had received from the Spirit. That message was good news to the poor; bad news to the rich, good news to the oppressed; bad news to the oppressor, good news to the captive; bad news to the captor. Some loved it; some hated it. Jesus didn’t care. He just kept preaching.
Exhausted from his encounter with the demon of mental illness at church and the demon of fever in Simon’s home, Jesus retired to the wilderness. The wilderness was considered a haunt of demons. Indeed it was there that Jesus had his famous tangle with the Tempter. But it is here that Jesus finds the God who alone can fill his emptiness. Nothing is as exhausting as a genuine encounter with evil.
When the crowds found Jesus, Luke tells us, “They wanted to prevent him from leaving them.”
Nothing could be more natural. Most of the sick and crazy people in Capernaum were still sick and crazy. They wanted to keep Jesus around so they could take advantage of his amazing powers.
“I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also,” he tells the people, “for I was sent for this purpose.”
Jesus didn’t belong to Nazareth and he didn’t belong to Capernaum. Jesus doesn’t belong to the United States of America and he doesn’t belong to Canada. Jesus is always invading fresh territory. We don’t know how many disciples Jesus attracted in Capernaum–we only learn of four. When Jesus moved on, these four moved on with him. That’s what made them disciples. That’s what makes us disciples.