As unremarkable as the miracle that Jesus performed in the Synagogue might have been, the focus of Sunday’s Gospel really seems fixated on the various reactions that people and spirits had to Jesus. Less than halfway through the first chapter of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus has already engendered several strong reactions. At his baptism, the heavens reacted to Jesus by being torn apart and a voice saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” The [Holy] Spirit responded by whisking Jesus into the wilderness, where Satan tempted him for 40 days. Simon and Andrew reacted to Jesus invitation by dropping their nets and following him. James and John, sons of Zebedee, did the same.
Our story follows, with Jesus in the Synagogue at Capernaum. He taught with a particular kind of authority, and the congregations reaction was, in the Greek, ekplesso, which literally means, they were blown away; not by what he taught, but how. Immediately, the scene cuts to a man with an unclean spirit. Just like it was with Satan in the wilderness, the unclean spirit knew something was up and their reaction is telling, “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.” It seems the spirit could see beyond the flesh, and knew the heart of Jesus. The spirit was afraid of what Jesus might do, but we should be careful reading too much into the title that the spirit calls Jesus.
While most of us reading this passage would assume that the spirit knew that Jesus was the Messiah, The Jewish Annotated New Testament (p. 61) notes that this phrase, “Holy One of God” mirrors a title given to Elisha in 2 Kings 4:9. Rather than a messianic title, it is a comparative title over and against the evil spirit. Instead, it makes clear that unlike the spirit, which belonged to the evil one, Jesus belonged to God. What follows is an example of how the power of God’s holiness is stronger than the power of evil, as Jesus casts out the spirit, leaving it disembodied and unable to act in the world.
The final reaction, then, is the crowd’s response to what they just saw. They were thambeo, astounded. Mark seems to use ekplesso and thambeo interchangeably, as both variously refer to the reaction people have to Jesus teaching and to witnessing miracles. Still, it is worth noting that even though the spirit saw Jesus as holy, the crowd is struck particularly by his authority. Their response isn’t worship, at least not yet. Instead, they are awestruck, flabbergasted, and astonished. It would behoove us, I think, to pay attention to how we respond to Jesus in our own experience. Are we amazed by the wisdom of his teaching? Are we astonished by his holiness of life? Are we fearful of his call upon our lives? How do you react to Jesus?