My friends and I got together yesterday and talked about today's gospel. Here's some of what we discussed.
When Jesus taught in the synagogue, the gospel says that he did not teach like the scribes, but with authority. We are left to surmise the difference. Perhaps the scribes taught with arrogance, speaking down to those who did not possess their knowledge. More likely, the scribes taught what the scriptures said, but Jesus taught what the scriptures mean. We know from other gospels that Jesus claimed authority that the scribes dared not claim. For example, in the sermon on the mount, Jesus says, "You have heard it said, . . . but I say . . . ." In his book, Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict XVI notes, "He teaches not as the rabbis do, but as one who has 'authority' (Mt 7:28, cf. Mk 1:22; Lk 4:32). Obviously this does not refer to the rhetorical quality of Jesus' discourses, but rather to the open claim that he himself is on the same exalted level as the Lawgiver--as God."
Not only did Jesus teach with authority, he backed it up by performing miracles. He cast out demons and cured leprosy. He restored sight to the blind and made the lame walk. If you've been following the weekday gospels, Mark continues to relate the many miracles that Jesus performed and the crowds that followed him because of it. In spite of seeing all of these miracles, the apostles are still astonished when he calms the storm at sea!
Jesus punctuates his teaching on this occasion by casting out an unclean spirit. It's not uncommon these days for "experts" to explain away demonic possession in biblical times as cases of mental illness. Whether possession or insanity, the encounter with Christ still produces a miraculous result. Some cases, according to Jesus himself, can only be helped by prayer and fasting.
The demon possessing the man in today's gospel knew Jesus's identity. I can't help but wonder, therefore, why he would go to the synagogue. It could have been to find out whether Jesus really was the Son of God--a kind of demonic recon mission. Another opinion would be that the demon went to the synagogue to "out" Jesus and make it harder for him to accomplish his mission.
Consider that before this incident, these men had been going to the synagogue week in and week out, listening to the scribes and sitting in the presence of a demon. Jesus comes with a new authoritative teaching and casts out the devil that either they had not recognized or had learned to live with. What happens after Jesus leaves? Do they allow themselves to be changed by this incident, or do they return to their prior, comfortable practice? It can be the same way for us, when we attend a retreat. We draw closer to God and see him with clearer eyes for a weekend, but then we return to our lives. Are we changed by the retreat, or do we slip back into our comfortable patterns of living, allowing ourselves to be blind to sin and resisting the call to daily conversion?
Lord, you taught with authority and you cast out demons. Help us to hear your words and accept the teachings of your Church. Give us the grace to see the demons around us and resist their temptations. May we spread your fame and lead others closer to you. We humbly ask this in your name. Amen.