Corrie and I caught the first episode of a new documentary series that’s airing on PBS this winter. It tells the stories of people who met during significant historical moments and the efforts to bring them back together after decades. The first episode told the story of Reiko, a Japanese-American woman now in her 80s who was among the hundreds of thousands who were taken from their homes and lives and interred in camps for the duration of the war.
Reiko wanted to reconnect with Mary Frances, a Caucasian girl who had been her best friend. Their friendship was opposed by Mary Frances’ parents and broken when Reiko and her family were interred in Wyoming. After the war, when she returned home with anti-Japanese sentiment still running high, Reiko was afraid to go to school. But on her first day back, Mary Frances ran up to her, took her hand, and walked with her into the classroom.
In recent years, Reiko has been a docent at a museum in LA where she tells that story to school children, emphasizing to them the importance of reaching out to others of different nationality, ethnicity. To me, it’s a powerful story of the forces of love and decency standing up to evil and injustice.
Today’s gospel reading is a story of a dramatic encounter of Jesus with evil in the form of a man possessed by an evil spirit. Over the decades that I’ve studied scripture and religious studies more broadly, there has been a sea change in attitudes toward the presence of, or belief in, supernatural forces like spirits or demons. When I was an undergraduate, the prevailing view seemed to be that such beliefs were relics of a premodern world view and that the best way to approach such things when encountering them in scripture or in the beliefs and practices of religions or cultures was to de-mythologize them, to interpret an account of demon possession, for example, as an attempt to make sense of mental illness. There was also a widespread assumption that in time, such beliefs and practices would decline and eventually disappear as the scientific worldview became more prevalent.
That hasn’t happened. Even though religious affiliation and commitment has declined precipitously, the same surveys show widespread belief in angels, spirits, and other supernatural beings. The much vaunted disenchantment of the world that was predicted or even described fifty years ago simply hasn’t occurred. The popularity of movies and tv series about vampires, zombies, ghosts, and the like, testify to our continued fascination with the spiritual world. Rarely a week goes by when I don’t see an article coming across my newsfeed that mentions exorcism in some way.
Still, I suspect that for most of us here today, not all, perhaps, but most, this story from the Gospel of Mark is troubling and opens up a perspective on Jesus very different than the one most of us hold dear. The Jesus we love and follow is a moral example, a teacher of deep and profound ethical wisdom, not an exorcist. But if we try to overlook that aspect of Jesus’ ministry in Mark, if we try to ignore the importance of language about the devil, evil spirits and so on in the Gospel of Mark, we will miss one of the gospel’s central themes, and one that may not only challenge us as we try to follow Jesus, but also empower us to see more clearly and act more boldly in His name.
It’s important to remember that in Mark, this is the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. We’ve seen him being baptized; we saw him call the disciples, but Jesus’ appearance in the synagogue, and his casting out of the unclean spirit are really his first public actions. And it matters that Mark tells the story this way. Each of the other gospels have different events at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. Luke for example, uses a similar setting of a synagogue, but offers details concerning Jesus’ preaching.
For Mark to begin his story of Jesus’ ministry with a confrontation with an unclean, or evil spirit, is important. Jesus’ ministry in the gospel of Mark is not just about the words he says and the example he set. In Mark, Jesus is combatting the forces of evil that enslave human beings and the world, and he brings freedom to those who are held captive by those forces. We see evidence for this cosmic battle already at the very beginning of the gospel. After his baptism, Mark writes, Jesus is driven into the desert where he is tempted by the Devil.
We can imagine the drama in the scene before us. Jesus and his disciples show up in the synagogue on the Sabbath and he begins to teach. The response was immediate—his teaching was something new, challenged convention, challenged tradition, challenged the views of the religious elite and official interpreters of scripture—the scribes. But hardly had he begun when Jesus himself is challenged. The man with the unclean spirit comes forward. He may be speaking not just for himself, or for the spirit within him, but he may be voicing the thoughts of others present,
“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.”
Jesus responds to him using the same word he will use later in Mark’s gospel to calm the sea, and Mark uses the same word, “rebuke” to describe Jesus’ response to the sea and to Peter, later on.
By casting out the evil spirit, Jesus returns the man to wholeness of body and mind, but he also restores him to his community. At the same time, Jesus’ authority, both his words and his deeds of power bring disruption to the community in which he works, a disruption that will end of course with his crucifixion.
Stories like this one are challenging on a number of levels. They challenge the way we look at the world and at Jesus. They challenge us also to think about the world in which we live; our assumptions about ourselves, God, and others.
We might see ourselves in this story as the man overwhelmed and bound by evil; the man set free by Jesus’ saving and transforming word. We may feel ourselves beset all around by forces outside of control, pressed down by personal concerns and worries, about relationships, illness, or worries about our families, our futures. We may feel beset, pressed down by other matters, fear and anger about events in our nation and the world, concern for those whose lives, families, and futures are threatened by deportation, racism, violence, hatred.
Or we may look more closely at ourselves and wonder whether, instead of the man with the unclean spirit, our place is among the bystanders in the story. Are we those who came to synagogue on the Sabbath as we do each week, to hear words of comfort, reassurance; to be told that all is right with the world and ourselves?
Wherever we stand, whoever we are, the Jesus portrayed by the gospel of Mark comes to us to disrupt our lives, unsettle our expectations, challenge our assumptions—about him, ourselves, our world, and our community.
Of course, we are a little bit of both. We come in need of words of healing, help. We come to be made whole again, to be restored, to ourselves, the ones we love, and to God. But we also must come to be challenged, to hear those words of authority, to see Jesus rebuking evil, casting it out. We need to speak and act with that authority, challenge the powers of evil that bind us all, fill us with fear, create division.
But sometimes the most powerful thing we can do, the greatest witness against those forces of evil, is to walk beside those who are more fearful, more threatened, than us. Sometimes, the greatest thing we can do is put our hand in the hand of another, and walk with them in witness and strength against the evil that surrounds us.