He knows who he is! He is not ignorant; he’s smart. He knows the visiting rabbi is both “the Holy One of God” and the one who has “come to destroy us”.
It is because he knows this that he ends up shrieking. He knows better than those around him, all the others who have come at sundown to observe the Friday Shabbat and Torah study.
He takes his customary place among his neighbors in the Capernaum synogogue. He does not expect much to happen. Everyone, including he, knows that he’s a little strange. Off balance, as the kinder of them say. Not the norm. Both they and he know his place. None of them yet knows Annie Dillard’s advice that worshipers “should wear crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake some day and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.” [Teaching a Stone to Talk, Harper and Row, 1982, quoted here from Wikiquote.]
They have no need for crash helmets, life preservers, or signal flares. Like the ones who are better balanced, he likes his safety. He is safe in his customary place among the customary people expecting a customary teaching from a customary teacher who teaches like a copy-editor (a scribe). He expects to leave the same way he has come: bored and boring in the daily-ness of it all.
They look at him. He looks at them. They all yawn. Until the guest rabbi takes his seat to teach and says nothing. Jesus just looks at them, reading their faces, reading their minds, looking into their hearts. They are uncomfortable with the long silence. He is reading them like a book he’s read too many times.
When finally the rabbi speaks, he astounds them. He reads the Torah and the prophets as living texts, not history. He is alive and expectant. He is not bored or boring. He teaches with authority. He commands the attention of everyone in the room. They want him, but do not want him. They haven’t brought crash helmets. They’ve come for safety.
He catches the eye of the man who’s a little off balance whose frequent uninvited outbursts long ago placed him in the back row of the assigned seating. Although the rabbi’s eyes are working the room from left to right and back again, seeing all the faces there, it is as though he is staring at him alone. They are all a bit on edge now, drawn to his voice and the content of his teaching, his unparalleled authority, but they are also becoming nervous that he is messing with them in ways they had not expected.
The man in the back senses this. He knows this, and he begins to twitch and make strange sounds. He is agitated, disturbed, out of his comfort zone, like everyone else.
His face twitching with the familiar tic, he struggles to his feet from his back row seat, shoving from his shoulders the hands of the ushers stationed on either side of him to prevent the man with Tourettes Syndrome from disturbing them and making a fool of himself.
He points at the rabbi and shrieks at him: “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.”
Jesus moves from the center to the back row. He tells the body guards to leave him alone. He stands eye-to-eye with him. “Be silent,” he says, “Come out of him” as though speaking not to the man himself but to others who torment him from the inside.
The whole synagogue is on their feet watching. They know that the Tourettes man with the tic and uncontrollable speech has spoken for all of the normal ones as well. “Have you come to destroy us?”
The man screams and convulses, but it is not the man who is convulsing; it is the hostage-takers whose powers are being broken that are convulsing: the fear of losing one’s assigned place, the customary despair and despairing comfort that robs him and all of them of the joy of the extraordinary in ordinary life.
Perhaps the story of “the man with the evil spirit” comes so early in the Gospel of Mark because it is the story of us all. The Holy One of God does come to destroy us as well as heal us. The next time you go to the synagogue for Sabbath rest or to church on a Sunday morning, take a crash helmet and expect something great to happen!
Click Gospel of Mark 1:21-28 for the story on which this sermonic reflection is based.
– Gordon C. Stewart, St. Augustine, FL, February 2, 2015.