Having received a remarkably bad welcome in his home-town of Nazareth, Jesus presses on to other places in Galilee. He goes to a town on the lake called Capernaum, and when the Sabbath comes, he sits down again in the synagogue to teach. Luke doesn’t yet tell us much more about the content of Jesus’ preaching. All we can assume is that it must have had themes similar to what he said in Nazareth.
The people are astounded because he speaks with “authority,” which means that what he says, happens. His words make things happen; they’re not just words. They change the world.
As an example of this, Luke recounts the story of “a man who had the spirit of an unclean demon.” Whatever kind of spirit this is, it does not exclude the man from the synagogue. But while there, hearing Jesus preach his good news of liberation and release, the man starts heckling him. “Let us alone!” he shouts. “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?”
Something about Jesus’ message deeply offends and frightens this man. It is this very question that may have been the subtext of his rejection in Nazareth. We know this question will be burdening the minds of the Pharisees and the High Priest later on. The establishment is deeply afraid that Jesus’ message and activity would be their destruction.
Superficially, their fear is that Jesus’ preaching of liberation, release, and reversal, might cause enough unrest in the population that the Romans would come and clamp down on them. But deeper down, this man with the demon expresses the fear that Jesus is bringing dangerous change to their own Jewish communities.
Jesus speaks with authority. It is one thing when preachers read from Isaiah, or the Passover story, and use it to complain about their situation. Everyone nods in agreement, vents some steam, and then quietly goes home. Nothing changes. As long as liberation, release, and reversal remain words, preferably old words written down long ago, then they can be domesticated and tamed and ignored.
But when someone shows up and it starts occurring to people that these words can actually happen, they can become flesh, they can be realized in history, they can change relationships…. Well, that’s different. That possibility wakes up the demons of complacency and defeatism that have quietly taken over people souls. That becomes a threat to the status quo, and it inspires this man to speak up.
“Leave us be! You with your fancy ideas and hopeless dreams. Things are fine the way they are! Leave well-enough alone! Don’t upset the apple-cart! It could be a lot worse, you know. You don’t have anything to do with us. Go back to Nazareth! Have you come to destroy us?”
Notice that he pretends that he’s speaking for everyone. And to some degree he is. He expresses the fear that many have that change is too hard; that it is in fact fatal. And it is.
Psychologically, change means dying to our old self so our new self, our deepest and truest self, can be born. Politically and economically, change means overturning one order so a new and more humane and benign order may emerge, an order Jesus refers to as the Kingdom of God. Jesus has not come to destroy the people, but he has come to destroy the prisons which have limited their freedom. These are interior prisons like disease and possession, as well as fear, anger, and shame and hatred. And Jesus threatens exterior prisons as well: indebtedness, coercion, exploitation, and oppression, not to mention actual prisons of stone and iron.
Then the man with the demon says, “I know who you are, the Holy One of God!” At which point Jesus decides the man has said enough, and rebukes him. Jesus knows that this is another temptation from the same source at the temptations he withstood in the wilderness. The demon wants Jesus to accept that title, “Holy One of God” from him, with all its baggage, assumptions, and prejudices.
It is as if the man says, “Who do you think you are? The Holy One of God?” Or as if he meant it ironically, speaking to everyone: “Check out the supposed ‘Holy One of God’… a carpenter from Nazareth, of all places.”
Jesus has no time for theological arguments. He does not at this point sit down and go through the passages in the Scriptures that refer to him. He does not accept the title of Holy One of God from this possessed man.
He simply instructs the demon to come out of him. He does not address the man, but the malevolent force that possesses the man. He addresses the man’s bondage, his slavery, his disease as if it was something inside of him that has a hold on him.
The demon throws the man on the ground, and departs, leaving him in his right mind. No ceremonies, no incantations, no elaborate ritual for the man to accomplish… Jesus doesn’t wield a staff like Gandalf driving the spirit of Saruman out of King Theoden (in the second Lord of the Rings movie). Jesus doesn’t even touch the guy. He just addresses the evil power and it departs, leaving the man free. The one who was so worried about the dire consequences of the kind of change Jesus promises to bring, is the one who first experiences those very changes… and he experiences them as liberation, healing, renewal, and release.
It is interesting that Jesus does not address the man directly, but talks to the demon, the evil power within him, as if they are two different entities, because they are. Jesus wants the man to dissociate himself from the source of his own fear, pain, and anger. He brings the man home by getting him to stand outside of himself, and he does this by addressing the other entity within him.
Sometimes the only way we can get free of what holds us down is by realizing that it is something else within us that is doing this to us, and beginning to talk about that other entity in the third-person. Because that’s not who we truly are. It does not have to be as dramatic and cinematic as in The Exorcist. But the simple realization that who I truly am in my deepest most original place is not defined by the defenses my fear has built around me, is truly liberating. When we stop identifying with the fear, anger, and shame, that bind us, and identify instead with this true and blessed self deep within us, that’s when healing can happen. Jesus comes to unlock and set free our true selves.
This display flabbergasts the bystanders. By a few mere words Jesus cures bigoted, paranoid, angry Uncle Jacob who is getting up from the floor with a smile on his face for the first time in decades. “What kind of utterance is this? For with authority and power he commands the unclean spirits and out they come!”
After worship, Jesus goes to visit the house of a man named Simon, who lives in Capernaum. The people had asked him whether he could go and heal Simon’s mother-in-law who had a high fever. Jesus rebukes the fever! He talks to the fever as if it were a person, just like he talked to the demon! Imagine if you had the flu and you go to the doctor’s office and the doctor starts verbally rebuking the fever. Or she starts scolding the viruses invading your body. What a strange thing!
Jesus is trying to tell us that we are not our disease. We are not our illness. We are not our addiction, or our handicap, or our sins, or our failures, brokenness, weakness, or pain. That’s not us. Whatever is binding us, Jesus will talk to it like it is some thing else, a parasite maybe, an alien presence, a different entity.
You are not made for isolation, discomfort, despair, and sadness. You are made for community, service, joy, and blessing. As soon as the fever departs from Simon’s mother-in-law, she gets up to show hospitality to her guests. That’s the kind of thing we are here for. That’s what these foreign invaders keep us from doing.
Jesus is demonstrating in his actions and relationships the liberation he proclaimed in Nazareth, demonstrated in the wilderness, and heard his mother sing about since before he was born. He’s not just preaching freedom; he is setting people free. There is nothing more dangerous to a closed, oppressive system than free people. What Jesus does for individuals, he is also doing for the whole captive, conquered nation… speaking of foreign invaders. Indeed, in his resurrection his work of liberation and release is extended to the whole creation.
The activities described here all take place on one day. It is a Sabbath day. It is the day of the week that Jesus deliberately chooses to make particularly spectacular demonstrations of his Messiahship. The Sabbath is God’s day. There is no better time to bear witness to the truth of God’s saving power. There is no better day to exhibit God’s liberating, redeeming, releasing, reversing power than the Sabbath, which is the day of God’s shalom, God’s peace.
No matter how corrupted his own society got, they always retained this special day when God could break in. The authorities tried to domesticate and tame and control the Sabbath, but Jesus shows that they cannot. The Sabbath belongs to God.
As the sun sets and the Sabbath ends, Jesus continues to heal and free all kinds of people. The demons keep trying to define him. They say “You are the Son of God!” which he is; but being the Son of God is something that he will determine and enact, not they. It is interesting to me that the demons have such good theology. Their doctrine is impeccable. Yet Jesus rebukes them and does not allow them to speak.
Because if you’re holding someone in bondage, as these demons are, confessing Jesus as Lord is empty and meaningless at best. At worst it is a cynical attempt to adopt and usurp, and so defile, the holiness of Jesus by association. It would be like slave-owners or drug-pushers or dictators or torturers, or other wielders of gratuitous and self-serving violence against the earth and people, proclaiming Jesus as the Messiah. Because when people hear this they could conclude that if Jesus’ lordship is anything like the lordship exercised by these tyrants they want no part of it. That’s what the demons want. They want people thinking that Jesus’ lordship is just like theirs.
But Jesus’ lordship is not anything enslaving demons would enjoy or profit from, so their identifying him as Messiah, while doctrinally correct, is done in the service of evil.
Jesus apparently heals people all night. At dawn he manages to detach himself from the crowds and find a deserted place to pray. He’s got voices proclaiming him the Son of God, he’s got people dancing for joy who couldn’t walk before, he’s got an exploding reputation as a healer and exorcist. It is an environment rife with temptations. He has to get away from it.
But the people search for him and finally find him and try to make him set up a permanent presence in Capernaum. But he refuses. “I must proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose,” he says.
This is a mass movement Jesus is building. He is sent by God to the people. So that is where he goes. His movement is light and flexible. It would be three centuries before it would occur to his followers that they should own buildings. Buildings have the annoying habit of staying in one place. Jesus’ ministry is on the move. It is wild and undomesticated; how could anything energized by the Holy Spirit be otherwise? Did you ever notice how much of Jesus’ ministry happens outdoors, in fields, on mountains, on roads, on beaches, in boats?
Jesus’ movement is about liberation and release. It is the demons who want to tie him down to theological categories, and it is the people who want him to stay in one place. But Jesus? He may be found taking refuge in the deserted, wild, untamed places.
He calls us out of our prisons and boxes. He frees us from the demons that would bind us. He delivers us from memories and habits, addictions and decay. He liberates us from oppression and debt, and sin and death. He redeems us from the fear, anger, and shame that would define us. He is about this profound freedom for joyful obedience to the God of love.