In Washington DC there is an old fire escape which made a brief appearance in “The Exorcist.” When I was an intern on the hill a bunch of us went up there one night and then one-by-one clambered down the thing. It’s lucky one of us didn’t break something. Later, when I was the intern coordinator, I had several interns come to me seeking the exact location of the iconic fire escape. I knew that they’d all make their way out there and I’d send up a little arrow prayer that nobody broke anything. Some of them went back several times as a point of some weird pride. I don’t know whether I just lacked the spirit of spiritual adventure or if it really was a spooky fire escape, but one time was enough for me.
Today’s reading is about an exorcism. To set the scene:
Jesus and his four new disciples had gone to Capernaum. While there, they went to the synagogue and Jesus was called up to do a reading and give a talk. People were really confounded by Jesus’s talk because it wasn’t based on the authority of Moses or the prophets, Jesus seemed to be teaching as if he had some kind of authority of his own. That is much different than the more traditional approach that the scribes would have taken. It was shocking!
Despite this, everything seemed to be going along alright for Jesus and his new disciples. But then a man from the synagogue came forward. He was imprisoned by a demon and the demon inside him managed to croak out some questions, “Do we have anything in common? Are you here to destroy us?” And, then, because it wanted to get the upper hand on Jesus, the demon claimed to know who Jesus was and called him God’s Saint.
Jesus was having none of it! “Be silent and release him!” said Jesus. And the demon was wracked with pain, it screamed in protest, but it did as Jesus said and left the man.
After that people started talking, the way people do. And Jesus became famous.
We have to think very hard about this business of demon possession. It’s not the kind of thing that proper Anglicans are likely to be chatting about at the coffee hour, but it’s here, right at the very beginning of our gospel, and so we have to get some kind of handle on it. In gospel writing, the first thing is important. And in the very first chapter of Mark Jesus casts out a demon. Later, Jesus will be accused of being possessed by a demon too! So, we are not going to skip over the demon.
We don’t know who the demon-possessed man was. But we do know that he was in the synagogue. He was one of us, an insider.
Another thing we don’t know is how long the man had been imprisoned by the demon, I suspect that a demon could be quite happy just quietly mucking things up in the synagogue not making itself known as long as things were going its way.
And we don’t know what Jesus said, but whatever he said, it was such a threat to the demon’s status quo that the demon made itself known.
the way we’ve always done it…
the way things are…
These are the demons of our own time. Most of us are ridiculously happy with things just the way they are. If we weren’t, then things would be different.
We love to talk about how God’s love extends to absolutely everyone. “All means all,” we say, and we mean it. We want it to be true. But we don’t want anything to actually change.
There is fear. Fear that the status quo which has given many of us so much privilege might evaporate and leave the rest of us unprotected. The status quo can be pretty appealing if it benefits you.
After all, if the blacks and the browns get true equality then they might treat us the way we always treated them. If people come to The USA from Mexico they might be poor and we would have to help them and the truth is that we don’t really want to help the poor, not if it means we have to spend our own money. If the playing field is really level then some of us who have benefitted from our citizenship status, or our native language, or being white, or male might not measure up. And, really, we like talking a good game more than we like playing it. Really, we just love the status quo. We love our demon.
It’s time to cast out the demon of the status quo!
Here’s the good news. Jesus came to set us free. Look, nobody believes in demons anymore. But the status quo is keeping lots of people from enjoying the blessing of being fully alive. Just like the man in today’s reading, we are imprisoned by expectations and societal regulations to the point that… “I can’t breathe.”
Each day we pray, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done…” That is a prayer asking for deliverance from the status quo. That is not some pie in the sky, sweet-by-and-by wish for everything to be nice. It’s a plea for deliverance!
Jesus came to set us free. In today’s reading, and throughout Mark we will see that Jesus has power over unclean spirits. But, do we really want to be free?
Linda McMillan lives in al Qurayyat, Saudi Arabia. No, it’s not near the sea.
Image: James Tissot: Healing of the Man with the Unclean Spirit
Some Notes of Possible Interest
Exorcism is not a term used in the Christian Bible. Though, some religions, including Roman Catholicism, practice exorcism, it is mainly something for the movies.
I have referred to the demon as it.
Capernaum… “The name means ‘village of Nahum,’ and though population figures are notoriously difficult to come by, recent estimates are that Capernaum housed about 1,500 inhabitants.” – From the Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, by Bruce Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh, Fortune Press, etc.… Buy it at Amazon. I love it. Available for Kindle!
Jesus is accused of being possessed by a demon in Mark 3:30.
Demon is a Greek term. Jesus and his friends would have called it an unclean spirit. Unclean spirit is the Semitic term. — .” – From the Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, by Bruce Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh
The biggest problem a demon has is that it doesn’t have its own body. To have any power, the demon has to become bound within a body. That act has the effect of imprisoning the host. Thus, the demon and the man became mutually imprisoned. That is why I said, “He was imprisoned by a demon and the demon inside him said…” Like the chiastic structure of this passage, the man was caught in the middle. The demon was inside him and trapping him from the outside too. He couldn’t get away from it, and it couldn’t get away from him either.
Do we have anything in common? Your Bible probably says something like, “What have you to do with us?” But what is happening is the demon, or perhaps the man in the demon’s voice, is asking Jesus if they are from the same place, if they are from the same tribe. Check out 2 Kings 3:13 for a time when Elisha asked the same question, “What have you to do with me?” Or, literally, “What to you and to me?”
James 2:19… The demons believe and shudder.