Then they came to Capernaum, and on the Sabbath, he entered the synagogue and taught. The people were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes. In their synagogue was a man with an unclean spirit; he cried 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!” Jesus rebuked him and said, “Quiet! Come out of him!” The unclean spirit convulsed him and with a loud cry came out of him. All were amazed and asked one another, “What is this? A new teaching with authority.” He commands even the unclean spirits and they obey him.” His fame spread everywhere throughout the whole region of Galilee.
– Mark 1:21-28
A few days ago, I was spending time with one of my favorite passions, music. I was transcribing a piece of music and listening carefully to the pianist to hear what he was expressing. I was trying to capture the exact chord voicings he was playing that had initially caught my attention and attracted me to his version of this particular song.
This was a heavily orchestrated piece with many instruments competing for attention. I was having a hard time tuning them out to hear the nuances of just the piano chords being played. As much as I’ve done this over the years, I had forgotten a basic guideline of music transcription: When you’re struggling to hear the right voice, listen to the bass note or the bass player. The bass is the foundation and authoritative voice of the harmony. It will always lead you to hearing the chord correctly.
Reflecting on Mark’s gospel reading this week, Jesus is the foundation and the authoritative voice we are listening for. Two essential parts of this gospel story resonated with me and prompted me to ask, first, how do I view authority in my life? And second, which voices of authority do I choose to listen to?
In our daily lives, we are flooded with many voices demanding our attention and seeking to become our authority. We listen to the various narratives until we settle on one—usually, the one most aligned with our thinking—and then we give it our attention and energy. However, in this, are we becoming deaf to a deeper voice? Because listening is such a subtle and seductive process, we can gradually allow outside noise to become the prevailing voice and inner authority of our lives.
When cynicism, indifference, entitlement, and greed become the mood of the day, they stir up fear and feed our need for power, control, safety, and security. These are the false authorities that take up residence in our minds and hearts and begin to drown out the voice we claim to be our true authority: Jesus, the Holy One of God. Are these the “unclean spirits” that inhabit us in our time? How does Jesus silence false voices and command the unclean spirits within us?
In this gospel, the people are astonished as they contrast Jesus’s teaching authority with the conventional teaching of the scribes. Jesus practiced what he preached: his authority came from the deep connection between his words and his actions, and the people in the synagogue sensed it. This is something very different, they feel, something more authentic. They are impressed. But the man with the unclean spirit is the only one who truly recognizes Jesus as the Holy One of God (“Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are!”). How does he know? Do the unclean spirits within him have more faith in the power of the Holy One than the others? Is it more natural for even people of faith not to be able to see God, or discern the healing presence of Jesus today?
I don’t have definitive answers to these questions because they emerge from a mystery not yet made clear. And if we are looking for a miracle, it may take even longer to arrive at a resolution. In Scripture things are very condensed. Events happen sequentially and often quickly. There is a problem; people suffer, pray, and repent; Jesus enters and performs a miracle; and people are healed and go about their lives transformed with new insight and faith. This can take much longer to unfold in our own lives, where things are often not so linear.
What I have personally experienced is the back-and-forth of it all. For me, there is a connection between silence and recognition. It becomes important for us to find ways of turning the volume of external noises down so that we can learn to recognize the unclean spirits within ourselves, the spirits that wish to drown out the Holy One. Acknowledging our need for healing is a step toward recognizing the healer in our presence. The good news here is while we struggle on the journey, and the Holy One of God will not be overcome by evil.
A gifted priest and good friend of mine recently reminded me that we discern spirits by where they lead us. So as we look at our motivations, intentions, and internal state of being, if we are making Jesus’s ministry of confronting evil our own, and if we are leaning into faith, trust, forgiveness, and mercy and away from fear, then we are being led in the right direction. Each of us will need to ask ourselves whether we will allow Jesus’s teaching to affect us and draw us out of ourselves to be cleansed in new ways, to be our true authority.
Which voice will you listen to? ♦
Bob Saraceni works with men’s spirituality and has helped to launch and develop men’s faith-sharing groups in parishes and congregations within Connecticut and beyond. The model offers men an opportunity to gather weekly for reflection and discussion on a variety of spiritual topics that tie Scripture and prayer to their lived experience. Bob also serves as a retreat director, facilitator, and spiritual director. He is trained in Ignatian spirituality, having completed the Spiritual Direction Formation Program at the Mercy Center in Madison, Connecticut. He is also a member of Spiritual Directors International. Bob is available for one-on-one spiritual direction to all who are interested in deepening their relationship with God. Find more at www.mensministryusa.com.