Can you imagine being the person at the center of our gospel story? Can you imagine feeling like you’re possessed by something that haunts and torments you every waking moment of your life? Can you imagine enduring the hostile stares of those who wish you would just disappear? Can you imagine giving up hope that you will ever feel “normal” again? (Whatever THAT means!) This is the plight of the man with an unclean spirit in our gospel lesson.
The first time I read the story at the beginning of the week, I thought to myself, “Thanks, Mark! Let’s begin Jesus’ ministry with a demon-possession story. Let’s cue the spooky music, special effects, and a Roman Catholic priest with holy water, yelling, ‘The power of Christ compels you.'”
Perhaps you imagined the same thing as the gospel was read to you a few moments ago. It’s okay to admit it. It’s a natural response. Demon possession is not something we talk about often, if ever, in 2018. It’s so removed from our reality that we don’t know what to think when stories like these appear in the gospels. However, I think Mark is trying to tell us something about Jesus that we need to hear. We have to dig a little deeper if we’re going to find it.
Our story begins in Capernaum which is Kefar Nakhum in Hebrew. It means the “village of Nahum,” who is one of the Old Testament prophets. Capernaum is on Lake Galilee. It’s the home of Peter and Andrew. It’s also home base for Jesus’ ministry.
I had the pleasure of touring the remains of this ancient city. I’ve seen Peter’s actual house, and stood on the spot where the 1st century synagogue once existed. All that’s left of it is it’s basalt stone base because a newer synagogue was built on top of it in the fourth century. You can tour the ruins of the newer synagogue.
I share all of this with you because I feel very connected to this story, having stood in the very spot where it happened. I know the layout of the ancient city, which gives me a feel for the dynamics that take place in our gospel lesson.
As the story beings, it’s the sabbath. In those days, local synagogue leaders customarily invited visiting rabbis to speak. Therefore, Jesus was a guest speaker. Mark tells us “they were astounded at his teaching for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” The word “authority” is EXOUSIA in Greek. It’s a specific word that refers to the power of the divine realm over demons.
In Judaism, scribes were recognized as interpreters of tradition, but the kind of “authority” or “power” Mark is describing here was not in their skill set! There was something different about this Rabbi Jesus from the get go! The people who were in his presence could sense it even before anything happened.
Its a safe assumption that the topic of Jesus teaching was the “realm or kingdom of God. Back in verses 14-15 of the same chapter, Mark says “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of (the kingdom) of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is near; repent and believe in the good news.'” Therefore, Jesus is telling the worshippers that there’s a new sheriff in town, so to speak! God is on the move. God’s power and authority will be seen in the midst of the powers of Rome and Israel.
As Jesus is teaching, he has the opportunity to prove his point. A man with an unclean spirit makes his presence known in the synagogue. Perhaps, he was already there and people were trying their best to ignore him. Perhaps he snuck in a little bit later in order to avoid the taunts and stares of his neighbors.
You see, I’m convinced, based on the size of the ancient city I saw, that these people knew this man. It’s not a big city. In fact, Peter’s house is only a few blocks from the synagogue. These people probably knew his name and I’m sure he was talked about constantly behind his back. Parent’s probably warned their children to avoid him at all costs.
In order for us to appreciate his affliction, it’s helpful to know that “unclean spirit” is an ancient Jewish expression for a demon. People in antiquity believed that demons were beings, Satan’s assistants, who moved into a person, group, object, or element of nature, and controlled significant aspects of that person or thing. Satan and demons emerged in Jewish literature from 300 BCE through 200 CE in order to explain the massive experience of evil.
While modern readers might not want to think of him as “demon possessed,” there was something about this man that was self-destructive, dangerous to others, or a combination of both. This is where we need to set aside all the images we have in our heads from horror movies and Stephen King novels, and dig a little deeper. It doesn’t help that Mark has this poor man saying “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?” It just reinforces the horror stereotypes.
However, if we think of this man’s affliction as something that is self-destructive, the “us” in this story have names such as: bipolar disorder, alcoholism, dissociative identity disorder, mental illness, depression, addiction, anorexia and PTSD. I think you get the point. We all have “demons” we wrestle with and they have many names. When the see our gospel lesson in this light it takes on a much deeper meaning. The man with the unclean spirit is us, at some point in our lives. At the very least, we’ve been among those in the synagogue, who know a family member, friend, or neighbor who is struggling with these demons. Perhaps we, too, have tried to ignore these people or wish they would go away.
However, the good news of our gospel lesson is that Jesus refuses to turn a blind eye to this man’s plight. Others may have done so, including the other religious leaders in the story, but Jesus enters into his suffering and changes his life forever. “Be silent and come out of him!” Jesus commands. The interesting thing about what Jesus said is that “be silent” literally means “be muzzled,” as if he is trying to control a dangerous animal. It’s the same word the gospels use when Jesus rebukes the stormy sea: “Peace, be still. Be muzzled.” Mark tells us that “the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, ‘What is this? A new teaching—with authority!'”
What Mark is trying to say by telling the story in this way is that Jesus has come to liberate the cosmos. He has come to make all things new. The reign of God is revealing itself in the world and it is changing the world for the better. We know that as the gospel of Mark continues, we see Jesus going to places where others would not go, bringing hope and healing to those in the most desperate of situations.
Friends in Christ, make no mistake about it. Our gospel lesson is a powerful story. If we strip it of its supernatural elements, it reminds us that Jesus knows our unclean spirits well. He is there to help us overcome them, walking with us every step of the way. If this is not good news, I don’t know what is. The encouragement we take from our gospel lesson is that we are not alone, no matter what unclean spirits we may be struggling with at any given point in our lives. Jesus is with us. He promises to bring hope and healing.
Furthermore, we are called to follow in his footsteps. We are called to bring hope and healing to those who struggle with unclean spirits, that leave them bruised and wounded. As someone who has dealt with an unclean spirit of two, I appreciate the people, including counselors, as well as some of the people in this room, who supported me in my journey toward wellness. I promise to do the same for you. I know you can also rely on your brothers and sisters in Christ who are in this room to support you as well.
We do not need to hide behind the mask of “Everything is just great. Thank you so very much for asking.” Instead may we reach out to Jesus, along with others, who can help us to make the journey from broken to whole. Amen.
Copyright ©2018 David Eck.