Satan is the father of lies, but he and his minions do occasionally confess the truth. “I do not accept the devil’s testimony but his confession,” wrote St. Ambrose. “The devil spoke unwillingly, being compelled and tormented.”
Today’s Gospel describes one such instance. It came near the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. Capernaum, a tiny fishing town on the northwest side of Galilee, was a second home to Jesus and the base for his public ministry. Synagogues in the first century were just starting to become focal points of worship, as well as places for town meetings and other civic affairs. Jesus regularly went to the local synagogue, as Mark notes elsewhere (Mk 3:1; 6:2), teaching a message of repentance, good news and the realization of the Kingdom of God (1:14-15).
The people were “astonished at his teaching”; they were enraptured and awed by his words, a theme emphasized through Mark’s Gospel. Why? Because he taught as “one having authority.” The Greek word for authority, exousia, means having the freedom and ability to express one’s power or rule. Jesus did not teach by referring to the authority of others, but by presenting himself as a final and authoritative teacher. This is contrasted to the lack of real authority on the part of the scribes, who offered opinions or referred to other traditions.
But the more significant contrast and conflict was with unseen, demonic powers. It isn’t clear where the possessed man came from or why he was present. It is possible that he — or the spirit that possessed him — came out of curiosity. After all, Satan had unsuccessfully tempted Jesus. So, who was this mysterious and compelling teacher? Whereas the people where astonished at Jesus’ teaching, the man with an unclean spirit became anxious and agitated: “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?”
Here was a real and dramatic instance of the Kingdom of God confronting and rebuking the reign of evil. And the unclean spirit, having acknowledged the humanity of Jesus of Nazareth, then confessed his divinity: “I know who you are — the Holy One of God!” That title was used in the Old Testament of both God (1 Sm 2:2; Hos 11:9) and holy men such as the prophet Elisha (2 Kgs 4:9) and Moses (Ps 106:16). Jesus is both: the true and greatest prophet of God described in today’s first reading from Deuteronomy 18, and God incarnate.
The demon recognized Jesus. But he refused to believe; his choice to turn away from that divinity and holiness had been made long before, outside of time, when demons “radically and irrevocably rejected God and his reign” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 392). Having rejected the source of love, they were no longer capable of love, which must accompany truth in order for it to live, grow and be given to others. “Faith is mighty, but without love, is profits nothing,” St. Augustine wrote. “The devils confessed Christ, but lacking charity it availed nothing. … They confessed a sort of faith, but without love. Hence they were devils.”
The people were then amazed at Jesus’ ability to cast out an evil spirit. They had witnessed the work of Christ: to teach, to exorcise and to heal. Today, we who hear God’s word, are baptized, confess sin and receive the Eucharist are also witnesses. But more than witnesses, we are members of Christ’s mystical body and citizens of the Kingdom of God.
Carl E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.