In the previous post Jesus called the first disciples. This is the very next part of the story in Mark’s gospel.
Jesus and the disciples come to Capernaum and Jesus goes into the Synagogue on the next Sabbath day. And here he is teaching. Jesus would have been drawing his teachings from the Hebrew Scriptures, what we sometimes refer to as the Old Testament. The scribes also taught from the Hebrew Scriptures but in listening to Jesus the people sensed his authority and that he was teaching them something they weren’t learning from the scribes.
And into this teaching session comes someone with an unclean spirit. Mary Harris Todd describes “an unclean spirit [as] a disruptive spirit, a negative force or power that resists the will and way of God and oppresses people. Unclean spirits hold people captive, hold them down, preventing them from being healthy and whole as God intends.” This is distinct from a demon or evil spirit. The person who enters the room not possessed by an evil spirit per say but is caught in something that makes their spirit unclean or unhealthy.
So there is some tension between Jesus and this person with an unclean spirit. If Jesus has been teaching from the Hebrew Scriptures, there is a good chance he was following in the footsteps of the prophets which emphasize God’s concern for the people who are marginalized in some way – the poor, the orphans and widows, the immigrants and foreigners. This person who is confronting Jesus would have been part of the religious establishment. The religious leaders at the time of Jesus were known for being caught in the ritual and word of the scripture and paying less attention to the spirit of the scripture. There was also a certain amount of collusion with the Roman Empire. If Jesus was being true to the message of the prophets from the Hebrew Scriptures his teaching were a direct threat to the scribes, the Pharisees and other religious establishment. They had a lot to lose from Jesus re-orienting the faith back to the message from the prophets.
The unclean spirit recognizes Jesus and the truth of the message but doesn’t want the message known because it would destroy their place, their power and privilege. And then Jesus orders the unclean spirit to come out which results in convulsions and crying. I’ve had experiences in my own life when I can hear God speak to me but I don’t want to listen. And I have argued with God and cried and tried to have my own way but eventually, I have to give in.
I imagine this person hearing Jesus’ message and trying to hang on to their power and privilege but the message is so persuasive they have no choice but to give in—but not without a struggle.
Ched Myers suggests that one of the challenges of reading exorcism and healing stories is that we imagine them as supernatural events. To the people participating and witnessing them they would have been a normal part of life. He also suggests that Mark’s gospel goes to great lengths to remind us that these are not magical events but grounded in the political realities of the time. He goes on to write that Jesus’ acts are “powerful not because they challenged the laws of nature, but because they challenged the very structures of social existence.” The power here is not that Jesus cast out a demon but that someone powerful was changed by an encounter with him.
The first disciples jumped up and followed Jesus without have a clear understanding of what they were being called to or what Jesus’ mission was all about. This part of the story begins to make that clear.
The first public act in Jesus’s ministry is healing the unclean spirit. This is the spirit which is a powerful, negative force in people’s lives. This is the spirit that holds people captive and prevents health and wholeness. This unclean spirit is threatened by Jesus’ return to the teachings from the Hebrew Scriptures. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures there is a strong emphasis on doing justice and having compassion. The prophets were constantly reminding both the leaders and the people to refocus on justice and compassion. Jesus follows in those footsteps and by doing so threatens the very existence of the unclean spirit.
We sometimes think it is others who are in need of healing of unclean spirits but often it is ourselves that most in need healing. We need healing of our own unclean spirits for all the ways in which we perpetrate racism or homophobia or get caught in our own greed. Many of us benefit in some way from maintaining these structures—just like the scribe benefits from maintaining the religious structure.
Healing our own spirits of racism and homophobia and other forms of fear and hate not only brings healing to our own spirit but it heals the community of which we are apart. As long as we don’t allow the healing to touch us, the community will be torn apart and broken. In Mark’s gospel, following Jesus requires us to heal unclean spirits. We need to always be healing our own spirit and we need to be encouraging those around us to heal their spirits. In the healing of spirits from all forms of hatred, violence and greed we heal community and build healthy relationships. Healing unclean spirits leads us deeper into the work of justice and compassion.
In the movie Chocolat the mayor puts his energy into trying to control his own behavior and that of the townspeople. He works hard at being faithfully observant of Lent and of excluding people who are different or that threaten the status quo of the community. There’s a scene where he goes to the chocolate shop with the intent of destroying a woman’s business and driving her out of town but instead ends up gorging on chocolate and then crying he recognizes his own broken spirit. The local priest sums it up in his sermon by reminding the people that Jesus was about embracing life and embracing people. The community is changed by these events and relationships are restored.
As the mayor reminds us, the healing can be painful and we often resist it. We hang on to what we know, what is comfortable, what we’ve been taught—just like the scribe with the unclean spirit. Allowing ourselves to be more open to God and to the spirit creates space for the healing to be at work.
Being diligent about the practice of centering prayer and other spiritual practices can create space so that the spirit can touch and heal your spirit.
. Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (Maryknoll:Orbis Books, 1988), 146.
. Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (Maryknoll:Orbis Books, 1988), 148.