I think the miracle, healing, and exorcism stories in our Gospels are some of the hardest stories for the modern-day Christian. The worldview behind these stories is just so different from the dominant worldview today. And as a result, we ask all sorts of questions that would not have been asked by the writers of the Gospels or the first readers. We ask, could the man who was possessed have been mentally ill? Was he suffering from schizophrenia or was he bipolar? Was his possession psychosomatic and the charisma of Jesus brought him to his senses? Some ask, was Jesus a charlatan with whom the possessed man was in cahoots? Maybe his followers simply invented these stories in order to convince people that Jesus was worth following. In other words, we try to drag this story out of the worldview from which it was written and into our 21st century worldview.
The motivation to do this is completely understandable. It is very difficult to understand something through a worldview different from one’s own—this happens even with people living in the same time period—look at the modern-day divisions within our country or between countries—most involve groups of people looking at the world through very different eyes. The problem is that when we try to drag the miracle, healing, and exorcism stories into the present-day understandings of the world, we change the story, and it no longer makes any sense. The point of these stories only becomes clear when we view them, as much as we are able, through the eyes of the original writers and readers.
Mark wasn’t trying to answer the why of exorcism when he wrote our Gospel passage for today. For Mark and everyone in his day, demon-possession was a reality. The world was a spiritual place and there were both good and bad spirits. These were not psychological problems caused by inner conflicts or psychiatric problems caused by malfunctioning neurons. These were real forces who were diametrically opposed to God’s will, and they would from time to time possess human beings.
Mark wrote about the exorcism to demonstrate Jesus’ power and authority. This is the main point of this passage. This chapter began with Jesus knee deep in the Jordan with the heavens ripped open and God’s reign being set loose on earth. After his baptism Jesus is tempted in the wilderness and now has begun his ministry. Among all four Gospels, Mark is the only writer to use Jesus’ encounter with the demonic power of evil as the opening scene of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus’ very first act of public ministry is to demonstrate the kingdom of God on earth by opposing the forces of evil which would rob God’s creation of all that God intends and hopes for it.
Mark is trying to answer some questions with this story, even if his questions are different than our questions. Why does Jesus do what he does? For whom does Jesus speak and act? Is God’s power stronger than evil? What does God’s power look like? What does it look like when God is in charge? And what answers does this story give us? Well, let’s look more closely at the story.
Jesus begins his public ministry at the heart of his society, at a synagogue, and on the Sabbath. He enters sacred space (Sabbath) and sacred place (synagogue). The NRSV, our biblical translation, says that Jesus “entered” the synagogue. One commentator I read said it would be better to say he “strode” into the synagogue. When we “stride” we are full of confidence. Jesus was confident. He was full of authority.
So, Jesus strides in and teaches. The Greek indicates that Jesus teaches at some length, and his teaching is like being “struck hard by a fist.” Mark does not tell us the content of what he taught. Apparently, that is not important to this story. What is important is how he taught and how the crowd listening to him responded. The people listening that day were “astounded” at his teaching for he “taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” Now this does not mean that the scribes were poor teachers, or lacking confidence or charisma. Mark is simply saying that it was evident that there was something different about Jesus.
When the scribes taught it was their responsibility to use Torah or the teachings of Rabbis who had gone before them to set the social and cultural boundaries of their community. The law, or Torah, wasn’t just a system of rules and regulations. It was the ultimate revelation of what it meant to be human. The authority of the scribes came from this revelation. Their teaching maintained the Jewish people in their distinct, and special identity. So, scribes frequently would say things like, “Rabbi so and so taught. . .” or “Moses said. . .” They taught with wisdom and erudition, but their authority came from outside of themselves.
Jesus, on the other hand, operates by his powerful word. And his powerful word strikes home because his teachings open new ways of thought and experience, ways of thought and experience that are freeing and life-giving. And in the midst of this powerful teaching, a man with a demon, with an unclean spirit, breaks in, “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.” This is less a question and more of a challenge. Jesus is invading the unclean spirit’s domain. To the spirit, who immediately recognizes who Jesus is, Jesus belongs to the kingdom of God, not in the sphere of history. However, the kingdom of God has drawn near, breaking down old boundaries and claiming history and creation for God.
There is no struggle in Jesus’ response. Jesus stands before a defeated enemy. Evil is present only as a vanquished opponent. The unclean spirit speaks and Jesus rebukes or muzzles the spirit. There are no incantations, magic words, props, ceremonies, or rituals. There is no power struggle. The spirit has protested, spoken, and acted out, but beyond that there is no fight. Jesus does not destroy the unclean spirit, but he demonstrates his authority over it and denies the spirit’s authority over God’s creation.
We see in this passage that Jesus’ will and God’s will are one in the same. Jesus speaks and acts on behalf of God. God’s power is stronger than evil. God’s power is freeing and liberating. God’s power is healing and restoring. God’s power is not violent or controlling. When God is in charge creation is restored to health and wholeness. Unclean spirits curse. God blesses. Unclean spirits tear down. God builds up. Unclean spirits disparage. God encourages. Unclean spirits sow hate. God sows love. Unclean spirits seek to split us apart. God draws us together. Jesus’ actions, words and very presence demonstrate all these ways of God and the people are amazed. Maybe a better world is possible.
But what does this mean for us in 2024 who don’t have the same worldview as those who lived 2000 years ago? Well, I don’t know about you, but it is pretty clear to me as I look at the world around me that evil exists. I don’t know that I believe in demon possession, but I certainly know that there is an awful lot wrong with humanity that just doesn’t make a lot of sense outside of the idea of evil.
Why do we continually act in ways that go against our best interests? We deny climate change. We continue to live in ways that threaten our very existence. We create weapons that could wipe us all off the face of the earth. We start wars that go on and on and hurt our own people as much or more than the people we are fighting. We have the means and the knowledge to solve many of our most basic problems, and yet we follow leaders who only have their own interests in mind and who will never implement these commonsense solutions. We continue to uphold systems that harm people because of their skin color or gender or ethnicity or sexual identity or ableness or on and on the list could go. This story encourages us to name all the demons that possess us, because if we don’t name them they will name and control us and in controlling us they will destroy us.
And we see in this story that Jesus embodies the power, the only power, that can overcome evil—the love of God. Will we trust that authority? Will we follow that authority? Will we model our lives on that authority? Amazement is not faith. Will we allow ourselves to be amazed by Jesus’ authority and then move beyond that amazement to faith, to the following of the person who embodies the kingdom of God? The God of the miracles of Jesus is directly interested in people. The God of the miracles of Jesus loves us more than we love ourselves. The God of the miracles of Jesus enters into our sufferings and brings us freedom and liberation. Will we trust in this God? Will we trust that a better world is possible?
Now, you might wonder what difference this would make. I’m not saying this passage is calling us all to be Pollyanna’s who always look on the bright side of life. Indeed, throughout his Gospel Mark wants us to know that Jesus’ authority will be contested authority, because the forces that claim authority over people’s lives have something to lose when Jesus steps in. Indeed, these forces will put Jesus to death—and God will raise him up. Without the hope that a better world is possible we will never be open to being present-day mediators of God’s love, God’s power, God’s kingdom. We will never be open to the possibility that the “way things are” must not always equal “the way things have to be.” We will never act to make change.
I leave you with a story about Martin Luther King Jr. that you have likely heard before, but I think is the perfect example of Mark’s message to us today. Early in King’s work he became very discouraged. He was in the midst of the months’ long boycott of the buses in Montgomery, Alabama. The death threats had begun. He would frequently receive as many as 40 threatening phone calls a day.
On the evening of Friday, January 27, 1956, King reached his breaking point. He described it in his book, Stride Toward Freedom:
I was ready to give up. With my cup of coffee sitting untouched before me, I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing a coward. In this state of exhaustion, when my courage had all but gone, I decided to take my problem to God. With my head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud.
The words I spoke to God that midnight are still vivid in my memory. “I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.”
At that moment, I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced God before. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: “Stand up for justice, stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever.” Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything.
“Three days later a bomb blasted his house and his family escaped harm by a hairsbreadth. “Strangely enough,” King later wrote, “I accepted the word of the bombing calmly. My religious experience a few nights before had given me the strength to face it.”
News of the bombing drew a crowd A mob formed within the hour, all clenched jaws and closed fists. And they pressed up against the shattered house and shouted for vengeance. King mounted the broken porch and raised his hands. “We must meet hate with love. Remember, if I am stopped, this movement will not stop because God is with this movement. Go home with this glorious faith and radiant assurance.” And thus the mob dissipated, their mood disarmed and their ears ringing with the message of gospel non-violence.
Some 11 years later, King spoke before an audience of his epiphany in the kitchen. “It seemed at that moment, I could hear an inner voice saying to me, ‘Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you, even until the end of the world.’ I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone.””
“What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” Indeed, in God all things are possible. Amen.
 John Dear, “The God at Dr. King’s Kitchen Table” January 16, 2007, National Catholic Reporter. Retrieved on January 25, 2024 from https://www.ncronline.org/blogs/road-peace/god-dr-kings-kitchen-table.