It’s surprising that the demoniac was in the synagogue at all. Here’s a quintessentially impure person in the middle of a Jewish worship service where, I assume, much of the talk was about purity. After Jesus teaches in the synagogue, the people there express surprise that his preaching is not like the preaching of the temple scribes, which gives some merit to my assumption. What would temple scribes be preaching about other than the law and how to uphold it? And since so much of the law has to do with purity, I imagine the people of Capernaum sitting through sermon after sermon about how to be pure. This must have been a deadly bore. More than that, it was ineffective. We know nothing about the demoniac, except that he hasn’t been shunned from the synagogue and no one seems very surprised to find him there. So maybe he’s a regular attender. He comes in and sits and listens to long talks about purity, and maybe nods his head and goes away. But how could this be if the demon in him was raging and fulminating as other demons do in Mark’s gospel. He’s not exactly living among the tombs and thrashing himself with chains. He’s just an ordinary guy. Which leads me to the conclusion that he doesn’t know that he has a demon inside of him. He doesn’t know it until Jesus starts to speak.
There are all sorts of places to go with this insight. Could it be that many of us are carrying around our own demonic defenses and intentions, like hidden cancers? Why is it that the demon only unveils itself when Jesus comes near? Is this unveiling a response to Jesus’s person, or his message? If it’s a response to his person, then we can tell a story about people who feel a hidden evil rise up within them when they come into contact with the very good. Surely this is a common human experience, to encounter the good and feel judged by it and therefore to attack and ridicule it. Not a very happy insight into our nature, but there nonetheless. But what if it’s a response to his message? Mark is unclear about what that message is. He doesn’t tell us what Jesus says in that synagogue in Capernaum. The main hint that we get comes earlier in the chapter:
14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’
So Jesus is teaching about the Kingdom of God. Why would this cause such a reaction in the demoniac?
The best answer to this I could find is in Rodney Werline’s essay “The Experience of Prayer and Resistance to Demonic Powers in the Gospel of Mark,” which can be found in Inquiry Into Religious Experience in Early Judaism and Christianity (you can read it on Google Books by clicking here).
According to Werline, ancient jews saw the world as a spiritual battlefield between the demonic and heavenly powers. The demonic powers could be made manifest in the chaos of the sea at night or in the violence of a Roman soldier in his interactions with an ordinary Jew on the street. Or they could be made manifest in individuals, like the demoniac in the synagogue at Capernaum. All of the brutality of first century Palestinian life, the violence of the Roman occupation, the internecine struggles among different factions of resisters, the closeness of sickness and death, the threat of starvation, and the religious burden of purity laws that didn’t seem to make things any better – all of these pressures could concentrate in one person and speak out as a demonic voice raging from a human mouth. Our poor demoniac, there in the synagogue, is taken over, infested, by the hatreds and fears of the world that whirl around him.
But like many of us, he’s become accustomed to these hatreds and fears. They define who he is to himself. He can’t imagine living without them. So when Jesus proclaims the coming of the Kingdom of God, he cries out against the very vision of peace and restoration that other people might long for.
Werline’s essay is mostly about prayer. Prayer as an active force, a spiritual battlefield, where people resist the demonic powers. We can assume that the demoniac in the synagogue is not very good at prayer. But the truth is, neither am I. I’ve never thought of it as a spiritual battlefield before, or a place of resistance. I’m reading Taylor Branch’s Parting the Waters right now, and have just finished the section about the Montgomery bus boycott. About six months into the boycott, the city brought indictments against all of the boycott leaders. The leaders first thought to hide when the police came to arrest them. But, following the advise of Bayard Rustin, they instead marched to the police station to be fingerprinted and make bail. After this act of confidence and courage, they transformed the nightly mass meetings that had sustained the boycott to that point into services of prayer and thanksgiving. They used prayer as a way of vanquishing the demonic.
Which leads me to the hermeneutic question: what are the demonic powers in our world today, and how can we, through pray, oppose them?