Each week, we look at one of the lectionary passages for the upcoming Sunday. This week we are looking at the Gospel Passage: Mark 1:21-28.
Mark is the weird gospel. John is always the gospel that I have heard pastors suggest to new Christians. Luke has the birth narrative and some of the best loved parables. Matthew has the other part of the baby Jesus story and the Sermon on the Mount. Mark? Well, Mark is short. It's action-oriented. It originally ended on a cliffhanger. And then there are exorcisms. Lots and lots of exorcisms. In Mark, it seems like Jesus is casting out demons left and right.
Which brings us to today's passage: the first account of Jesus performing an exorcism in Mark. The whole demon possession/unclean spirit thing is jarring to a modern reader. In the present day western world, these things don't seem to happen. Sure there will be a horror movie every few months in which a teenager (usually a girl for reasons on which one could write a graduate dissertation) gets possessed by the devil. And you might see the odd Dateline NBC where they'll interview a priest who is an exorcist. But on the whole, exorcisms are pretty foreign experiences to us.
Yet exorcisms happens with such regularity on Mark that it seems like encounters with the supernatural were part of a regular Tuesday for Jesus. What to do with this? I don't know! Do I believe that Satan exists? Yes. Do I believe people can be demon-possessed? I guess so, but it is so far off my experiential radar that Jesus might as well be shouting "Expecto patronum!"
It is important to remember that First Century Palestine was a very different time from our own. In fact, it is important whenever we read the Bible to remember that the stories we read took place in times were the prevailing worldview(s) were drastically different than they are today. In Jesus' day, what we might call mental illness might have been considered demon possession (as a sidetone: it is important that we treat mental illness in the Christian community as we would any illness and not a matter of spiritual weakness). Believing that Jesus was fully human, I believe that he was a person of his time. So there might have been cases when he (or the writers telling his story) understood these maladies in their period-appropriate context.
There are also times when Jesus is rather adamant that a demon is at work so I don't want to neglect that. Could demons have been more prevalent then? I don't know. Maybe so. God Incarnate was on earth so it's feasible that the forces of darkness would bring their A-game. Concerning the idea of demons, I think that C.S. Lewis gave great advice his preface to The Screwtape Letters:
There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.
I have greatly digressed. The interesting thing to me about this passage in particular is how casual the exchange is. If you or I were to come across someone who was legitimately demon possessed, it would be Spiritual DEFCON 1. We would be terrified. We would organize prayer rallies. We would get every minister, priest, and rabbi we could find and go to war on this supernatural interloper. It would be the most urgent spiritual matter at hand.
But when Jesus encounters people with unclean spirits? He says a few words. He might send the demons into a herd of swine. But that's it. It's cake to him. There is comfort in the fact that this big, scary evil is nothing to Jesus. The darkness is never going to conquer God.
But there is a flip side to this coin. The supernatural evil that we think is the most pressing folds like a cheap card table in the presence of Jesus. But all evil does not yield so easily. The normal, homegrown evil that Jesus encounters in hardened hearts across Galilee and Judah is a tougher foe. With our sin, our selfishness, our hatred, and whatever else we are able to concoct more fiercely tenacious demons.
It is not what we find in Mark, but the sin that lives in us is still a possession. We all choose it, but it eventually takes us over. This natural, everyday evil won't make your head turn 360 degrees, but it can turn lives into hell. The trouble is the more ordinary evil can disguise itself well. Greed can camouflage as ambition. Hatred can wear a mask of doctrinal purity. Fear can pretend like it just wants to protect flocks. All of it can be more socially acceptable. There have been and are cases where certain kinds of evil are sanctioned by churches.
I think that there is the possibility of big, scary evil existing, but I think the more terrifying possession is the normal evil that we allow to take residence in our lives. It is the evils to which we stubbornly cling even as they eat away at our being.
And so I read this exorcism in Mark and, after my initial bewilderment, I realize that this passage is not so foreign to our present experiences as it seems. We need what this man received. We need Jesus to make us clean. It won't be as dramatic as the Markan account. It takes time, but we need God to make us clean of the homegrown evil in our lives. For all have sinned and are in need of the Exorcist.