“Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, ‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?’” Mark 1:23-24
We can illustrate this point by looking at the four very different, but ultimately complementary, ways in which the evangelists describe the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry:
- In John’s gospel, the very first act of Jesus’ public ministry is his surprise visit to the wedding at Cana in Galilee; that beautiful story where Jesus’ ensures that the wedding banquet is saved from disaster by miraculously changing water into wine, so that all the guests can celebrate the nuptials into the evening. It is a classic Johannine story of perceived scarcity being transformed into abundance as the result of Jesus’ presence. For John, Jesus is the generative Word, the creative Logos made flesh.
- In Matthew’s gospel, the very first act he tells of Jesus’ public ministry is the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus preaches the Beatitudes, offering a new constitution for a new humanity. For Matthew, Jesus is the Great Teacher, the new Moses, who has come not to abolish but to fulfill the Law.
- In Luke’s gospel, the first act he tells of Jesus’ public ministry is his appearance in the synagogue at Nazareth, where Jesus proclaims that, in fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah, he is the anointed one who comes to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind and freedom to the oppressed. For Luke, Jesus is savior, the Messiah who will invert the established order.
Here, then, right at the outset of Mark’s gospel, we have a dramatic encounter between God’s Son and an agent of evil. For Mark and his community, it seems, a core aspect of Christ’s identity is that He is the Holy One of God who stands in solidarity with all who struggle against evil. And the theological upshot of the contest is clear: Jesus announces to the world that the Kingdom of God is absolutely incompatible with the tyranny of enslaving demonic powers.
Let me just say, preliminarily, that I have noticed over the years that contemporary readers of the gospels sometimes cringe with embarrassment or discomfort when they hear stories such as this of Jesus ‘exorcising’ ‘unclean spirits’ or ‘demons.’ Many of us have been taught that such talk is the product of a superstitious age, of a bygone era when people failed to understand the science of mental disorder and believed instead in a magical world of evil spirits. With all respect, I think this modern take on these stories is a seriously reductionist misreading of them, amounting to the hermeneutical equivalent of tossing the baby out with the bath water. I fully accept and embrace neuro-physiological descriptions of mental disease, and the various therapies that we have developed to address these disorders, but I think these New Testament stories about ‘demons’ and their capacity to possess the human soul have a far deeper theological significance than merely a primitive failure to understand brain science.
In fact, I think this spare story of Jesus’ encounter with the unclean spirit from Mark’s gospel has several important theological lessons to teach us:
The first lesson is that evil is real, and that there are destructive powers at play in the world and in the human soul that we are called to confront. Too often, I’m afraid, we liberal Christians domesticate and tame our vision of Jesus and his message by saying that it is all about love, compassion, and ‘being nice.’ Love may very well be at the core of Christ’s identity – I do not doubt that for a second – but God’s love is a bit more complex than ‘sugar and spice and everything nice.’ It is, indeed, a love born of struggle, and pain, and endurance in the face of adversity, and yes, conflict with the destructive elements within ourselves and our world. By placing this story of exorcising demons near the outset of his gospel, Mark is communicating to us loudly and clearly that Christ’s loving and redeeming work in the world will indeed win out in the end, but it will almost certainly involve convulsive struggle and pain with our darker side. This is the way of the Cross.
Mark’s readers were comfortable with phrases like ‘demons’ and ‘unclean spirits’ and ‘evil powers and principalities’ to describe the array of destructive forces that surround us, both personally and socially. We may well have a slightly different vocabulary, being familiar instead with the scourge of addictions, obsessions and compulsions; the plague of depression and melancholy; human preoccupations with violence and domination; institutionalized patterns of racism, misogyny, and economic oppression. We like to think we have a more sophisticated understanding of these debilitating and dehumanizing forces, but at the end of the day, they remain as seemingly intractable and destructive as ever, notwithstanding our enlightened capacity for describing them. Call them what you will, we still have our demons.
But the good news of today’s gospel is that in every generation Christ stands with us in naming, confronting, and ultimately overcoming these destructive ways of life, even though it may require the pain of a convulsive exorcism to defeat all that enslaves us. Indeed, what I love about Mark is that he, most starkly of all the evangelists, presents Jesus as at once the Son of God who ultimately conquers death and evil and a human being who ends up abandoned by his friends, subject to a painful and humiliating death, and crying out at the end to ask God why he has forsaken him. This story of exorcism at the beginning of Mark foreshadows that Christ’s goodness will triumph in the end over all that is evil in the world, but the balance of Mark’s gospel describes just how difficult and painful the journey to the Cross will be.
The second point I take from today’s gospel is a more subtle one. Notice that the man with the ‘unclean spirit’ in today’s lesson is not an outsider. While Mark doesn’t offer any details about his specific identity, the man is someone who emerges quite unnoticed from within the community, from within the temple itself, on the holiest day of the week. The man who is possessed by an evil spirit is not some foreign outsider, some interloper; he is one of us.
This subtle observation points to, I submit, one of the most important and underappreciated aspects of Jesus’ ministry – namely, that when Jesus confronts evil, or hypocrisy, or faithlessness, or other destructive patterns of human behavior, it is almost always from within the community. Whether it is the self-righteous Pharisees, or the power-hungry and suspicious Sanhedrin, or even the faithlessness of his own disciples on the way to the Cross, Jesus is constantly pointing us to the power of evil and sin to corrupt from within. When confronting evil, he seems to be urging us to look first at ourselves, to the log that is within our own eye, rather than to those outside ourselves.
On the other hand, Jesus’ treatment of outsiders, of foreigners, is almost always consistently hospitable. He reaches out to those who are different and ‘other’, and in his encounters with the foreign and the reviled, more often than not goodness and faithfulness emerge from these unlikeliest of sources, including, for example, Samaritans, Roman centurions, prostitutes, tax collectors and thieves.
We would do well, I think, to study this pattern in Jesus’ encounters, for it seems as if one of the most pernicious tendencies of the human heart is to treat ourselves as chosen and exceptional and to demonize ‘the other,’ those who are different from us: whether it is European settlers slaughtering native Americans; or colonial Americans enslaving Africans; or men enslaving women for their sexual satisfaction; or Islamic jihadists beheading Westerners in the name of Allah. Human beings seem to have an inveterate tendency to divide the world into good guys and bad guys (and notice that it is almost always ‘guys’), and to demonize and destroy all those who don’t share whatever our perception of the right and good social indicators are.
Jesus’ encounters with the demonic, as we see in today’s story and elsewhere, are always more complicated than that, and always have a different focus. The evil Jesus confronts, and by implication asks us to confront, is first and foremost the darkness that resides within our own souls and our own community. He invites us to name this darkness, confront it, and with His help, overcome it. I suspect that we would all draw closer to God’s heart and to building up His Kingdom if we followed Jesus’ example in tending first and primarily to our own capacity for destructive behaviors, rather than in persuading ourselves that surely it is the other who is the evil one.