21 They went to Capernaum, and when the Sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22 They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes. 23 Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24 and 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.” 25 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be quiet and come out of him!” 26 And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27 They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” 28 At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.Mark 1:21–28 (NRSVue)
Jump ahead with me, for a moment, to a scene later in the Gospel of Mark. Just before he turns his face towards the cross and Jerusalem, Jesus pauses to ask his disciples a defining question: “Who do people say that I am?” (Mark 8:27).
By this point in his ministry, Jesus has proclaimed God’s Realm across Galilee and beyond, performed numerous miracles, and gathered a substantial following of disciples. Still, even his closest friends and pupils struggle to define who he is and what his ministry entails. Only Peter proclaims Jesus as “the Messiah” (Mark 8:29), and even then, he rebukes Jesus when Jesus begins to explain what, for him, the role of Messiah must entail (Mark 8:32).
It is no coincidence that the gospel author places this scene at the very center of his narrative. The question of who Jesus is and what that means is central to the Gospel of Mark. This theme, however, begins long before Mark 8. Returning to this week’s gospel text, Jesus’ identity is already at the core of the action in this narrative. Already here in the first chapter of Mark’s gospel, Jesus is identified twice: first, by a divine voice at his baptism, calling him “my Son, the beloved” (Mark 1:11) and then, again, by a man with an unclean spirit, identifying Jesus as “the Holy One of God” (Mark 1:24).
It is this latter identification that stands out in the Capernaum scene (Mark 1:21-28). But unlike the divine voice from heaven that claims Jesus, signaling him out from an otherwise indistinguishable crowd, this man from Capernaum identifies Jesus based upon the exceptional deeds that he performs. Although the man appears to have been present in the synagogue throughout Jesus’ teaching, Mark tells us that it is only immediately after Jesus concludes his teaching “as one having authority” (Mark 1:22-24) that the man with the unclean spirit cries out. This man tells Jesus, “I know who you are” (Mark 1:24), based upon the astonishing teachings that he has heard.
There is a human tendency to attempt to figure people out—to know who they are and what they are about. This is why, later in Mark’s gospel, the disciples seem to have heard and are able to easily supply numerous theories about Jesus’ identity (Mark 8:28). There is even a human tendency to try to perform who we are or who we want to be to meet public expectations.
Recently, former US Representative George Santos was expelled from the US House, following a brief political career riddled with exaggerations and outright lies related to his personal identity. Fabrications included his education, career, charitable ties, and connections with the Holocaust, the September 11 attacks, and the Pulse nightclub shooting. Santos’s case is perhaps the most public and extreme example of such identity fraud to reach the national stage. However, it is by no means the first instance of a public figure manipulating public perception for personal gain. For example, the Tribal Alliance Against Frauds exists as an organization solely to prevent such fraud on the part of individuals and organizations falsely representing themselves as Native Americans and has been instrumental in discrediting numerous public academics in the past decade who have sought to pass themselves off as indigenous persons for the purpose of personal and professional gain.
Less measurable is the veracity of cis-gendered, White, straight, or male individuals who claim allyship with minoritized groups outside of their identity categories. Increasingly, activist groups are stressing that allyship is “not an identity we can claim” but rather “an ongoing practice, that should be described based on our continual actions” (Feminuity, 2022). Personally, as someone who embodies more points of privilege than not, I have learned that there are times in which my actions more closely align with my stated values than others. Who I say that I am is far less important than who I show myself to be through the work I engage with my actions—an ongoing point of growth. And, just as significantly, I have learned not to let what others say about me—“who others say I am”—stop me from doing the work.
That is to say, it is difficult to truly know who others are. Perhaps, sometimes, it may even be difficult to know who we ourselves are. And, yet, God calls us to continue serving and loving together.
Biblical scholars have long speculated about Jesus’ apparent hesitance to make his identity and vocation public, (the role of the so-called “Messianic Secret”), especially in the Gospel of Mark. Jesus’ rebuke of the man challenging him in the synagogue and others early in the Gospel of Mark has been cited as an example of such reluctance. The logic proceeds reasonably enough that, this early in Jesus’ ministry, he is not yet ready for the world to know who he really is. However, there are other moments in Jesus’ ministry where he seems far less careful. And, more to the point, even in this narrative, Jesus does not directly rebuke the identification per se, but rather, the unclean spirit who is terrorizing the man who is hosting him (Mark 1:25). In other words, from Jesus’ perspective, it is unclear whether there ever really is any secret that needs to be kept. When Jesus commands, “Be quiet and come out of him!” (Mark 1:25), the emphasis seems to be less on the content of the spirit’s words and more on his possession of the suffering man. Jesus’ work and, so, his response to the spirit-possessed man is less about arguing over titles or even rebuking a pretentious demon, but rather, about healing, caring for, and liberating the man himself—a valued child of God. Perhaps it is the case that the world—maybe even Jesus himself—is still figuring out who he is…and what that means for God’s activity in the world, but Jesus is clear on one thing: he has been called to do God’s work wherever and with whomever he finds himself.
When the man with the unclean spirit declares Jesus as “the Holy One of God,” he may no more anticipate that Jesus’ identification with God will lead to the crucifixion than Peter did on the road to Jerusalem. What the man does know—and what everyone else present also comes to accept—is that Jesus possesses a power and authority that has the potential to unseat unclean spirits and free those under their control (Mark 1:27). And, if Jesus intended this to be a secret, that plan went quite poorly as, with great speed, Mark tells us that “his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee” (Mark 1:28).
To the contrary, rather than silencing the unclean spirit’s identification because he wished to keep his identity a secret, I believe that Jesus silenced him as an expression of his identity as the Holy One of God—one who does not yield to evil, indeed, one who liberates others who have been swept up by its power. Jesus does not proclaim his identity because he does not need to; he embodies the justice and authority that God has granted him to wield. It is that justice—the abiding justice of God—that Jesus proclaims when he teaches in the synagogues and throughout Galilee, both to those who have ears to hear and to those who would prefer to turn the other way.
In today’s world, many people are obsessed with popularity polls–whether for cultural, political, or religious leaders. In the face of who others say that they are, sometimes those at the center of such polls may even lose sight of who they really are—or who they aspire to be. Whether individuals fabricate fantastic backstories or engage in performative allyship, if such performances center more on describing identity than on embodying it, then the point has been lost.
On the heels of our national commemoration of Martin Luther King Jr. earlier this month, it’s worth noting that Dr. King himself was not universally lauded as the beloved public figure most Americans have come to know today. According to at least one public poll in the year before his death, nearly three quarters of Americans disapproved of Dr. King, variously describing him as too radical or irrelevant. And yet, he persisted. King continued to work towards the beloved community that he understood to be central to God’s justice—to cast out unclean spirits in the form of White supremacy and economic inequality and to free ordinary people from the evils these ideologies put in place.
In contrast to so many people in our world, overly concerned with identity politics, naming and being named, it strikes me that Jesus never tells his disciples who he is. Rather, he embodies it every day—a faithful Jew teaching in the synagogues, a leader with authority casting out unclean spirits, a trusted rabbi feeding and healing. Jesus does not need others to define who he is because he rests in the knowledge that he is called and beloved by God. Jesus does not need the man with the unclean spirit to proclaim that he is the “Holy One of God” (Mark 1:24) in order to own and live this identity for himself. Whether you think you know who you are or, like me, are still figuring it out, God’s call is to act with authority for good and let the labels fall how they will. Indeed, embodying the truth is its own way of knowing and claiming God’s call on your life—of living a life of love, healing, and liberation authentically and with authority.