Paul writes “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Cor. 8:1) and Jesus enters the synagogue where he teaches “as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” (Mark 1:22) Read side-by-side, these two passages give me a bit of pause as a preacher, a member of a guild that strives to teach for transformation but all too often ends up confusing knowledge with authority.
It’s striking to me that after calling Peter and Andrew, James and John, Jesus heads to the synagogue to teach. So often we imagine Jesus teaching on the mount, or on the plain, or as they walked, or over dinner, even at the cross. So little of Jesus’ ministry is spent in the synagogue, so it struck me as significant that in Mark’s gospel Jesus begins there. The reaction of the assembly is instructive however. After he finishes teaching, the people are astonished at how different his presence is among them. He is said to teach “with authority, not as the scribes.”
At first this is frustrating to read. Jesus teaches with authority, but Mark doesn’t bother to tell us what Jesus said, what passage of scripture he chose to read, what application he made between their shared Jewish heritage and the present moment. Whatever knowledge Jesus imparted, it was apparently not the most significant aspect of his ministry in the synagogue that morning. Instead of telling us what Jesus said, Mark narrates an encounter between Jesus and a member of the community described as having “an unclean spirit” (v.23).
As Jesus finishes his teaching this man cries out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”
“What have you to do with us?” It’s a slippery question. Who is the man referring to? Later in Mark’s gospel Jesus will speak to a Geresene man possessed by a demon who identifies itself as “legion, for we are many,” (5:9) but this is not that encounter. Perhaps this event foreshadows that later one, and we hear the unclean spirit referring to itself as “us.” As I imagine the scene however, I place the man in the middle of the assembly gesturing to the people all around him as he heckles Jesus, “what have you to do with us?” It’s the sort of manipulation that playground bullies learn early on, to speak as though they represent a great many others. It’s the voice of “everyone knows” or “people are saying.” It’s the voice that inflates itself by claiming to stand for the majority.
“What have you to do with us? Have you come to destroy us?”
Ah ha! Now the real fear is exposed. First the unclean spirit questions what Jesus has to do with this community, this assembly; then it tries to incite a panic, “have you come to destroy us?” I suppose you could answer that question either way. On the one hand, the unclean spirit is right, Jesus has come to destroy the present arrangement of things. People and their families, synagogues and cities, powers and principalities will be upended and the world will not be left the same as it was. On the other hand, Jesus has not come to destroy but to heal, to liberate, to restore. Jesus is not the force of destruction, but God’s answer to the destruction of this world. The unclean spirit accurately names Jesus as the Holy One of God, before whom the status quo cannot stand, which is rightly threatening to most people, including us.
When Jesus arrives, things change. Jesus came to the seashore, and soon the disciples were leaving their nets and learning to fish for people. Jesus comes to the synagogue and the spirit that has taken up residence there has to go. Jesus liberates people from habits of life and patterns of accommodation that hold the status quo in place. I think this is what the people in the synagogue mean when they ask, “What is this? A new teaching — with authority!” They recognize that Jesus is more than an interesting lecture, a warm sentiment, or a well-constructed sermon but that in him the word is embodied, that intention is joined to action in a way that will not allow the present arrangement of power to remain unchallenged.
You can imagine how energizing this liberation movement could be to people and communities held under the thumb of empire. In fact, we know that within a few decades the apostle Paul was writing to the congregation in Corinth, for whom the knowledge of their freedom in Christ had taken on a rough edge, whose embrace of their liberated status had run rough shod over others in their community who were still coming to grips with the implications of the unfolding revolution.
At that time animals were still being sacrificed to a variety of gods worshipped throughout the empire. Choice cuts of meat might be burned on an altar, then served in a meal, while the remainder of the animal was sold to the meat market and then re-sold to whoever might purchase it. If you were being especially conscientious in your religious practice and trying to avoid eating meat dedicated to other gods, it could be very difficult. In response some Christians avoided eating meat altogether. Others, however, ate meat freely arguing that since there is no god but God, that meat dedicated to those idols was truly dedicated to nothing, and that there was nothing to fear from eating it. Apparently their disregard for the concerns of those who were being diligent in avoiding such meat was creating conflict in the congregation, so Paul steps in to reframe the debate.
The issue, he contends, isn’t whether or not it’s right or wrong to eat the meat. The issue is how you treat your neighbor who is earnestly struggling to live out their faith with integrity. The knowledge that there is no god but God may free you in principle, but if in your freedom you injure your brother or sister who shares your faith but not your knowledge, then what good has it done you or them? It’s not that knowledge is bad, it’s that it is secondary to love. When knowledge serves love, then the community is built up. When knowledge serves itself, then divisions creep in and take hold.
The injunction to keep love at the center of our life together as Christian people can be terribly inefficient. It is often much quicker to dispense with love and rely on knowledge alone. The knowledge of who is right and who is wrong, who stands with us and who stands against us, who is our ally and who is our enemy, is the world’s standard operating procedure for getting things done. Cut the issue and count the votes. Secure the win. We see it in our national politics, in our corporate boardrooms, in our community organizing, and sometimes in our congregations as well. It is outcomes at the expense of process, creating winners and losers constantly vying to gain or regain their power.
Knowledge without love seeks status. Knowledge with love seeks service. Perhaps this helps to explain why Jesus commands the unclean spirit to be quiet, not to reveal his identity, as he will command the leper he heals later in this chapter, or the disciples after he asks them who they believe him to be. Jesus is not seeking status, he is not concerned with whether or not people show him the appropriate level of respect. He has come to serve the creation by giving himself away in acts of love for the sake of healing, liberation and restoration.
At the river Jordan a spirit descended on Jesus like a dove, demonstrating a solidarity between Jesus and God, a solidarity we are invited to enter into as well. There are other spirits in this world however, spirits that puff up rather than build up, spirits that divide and conquer. In our baptisms we are asked to renounce those spirits and give ourselves to the Holy One of God who has come to set us free from anything that would separate us from one another and the God who created us in love.
What might it mean for us to renounce that unclean spirit, to exorcise it from our relationships to one another here in this congregation, from our dealings with those we disagree with at work or at home, from our politics — both local and national? What would it look like to use the freedom we have been granted by the gospel to meet those around us where they’re at, rather than to judge them for where they as yet are not? What are the conditions that make transformation possible? In my life knowledge has never been enough. It has always been love that has made me brave enough to believe that something new was possible.
In the name of Jesus. God’s love made visible.