Words of Faith
Rev. Rita S. Platt
February 1, 2015
Mark 1: 21-28
It has been centuries since the man with the unclean spirit was healed; our understanding of our bodies has increased in leaps and bounds. We know even more about the miracles of our brains, our nervous system, our circulatory system, our skeletal system. In our day and time it is not demons that cause illness.
Today demons live in books and movies. One of the most famous is The Exorcist (1973).
It is ranked number 2 in the list of horror movies that depict demon possession and exorcism. Just in case you are wondering, The Shining is ranked number one – but there is also a debate on the list on whether or not it really fits in this category.
Back to The Exorcist – the website says this about the movie:
“The standard by which all other demonic possession movies are judged, The Exorcist has terrified millions of viewers over the years with its then- (and still somewhat) shocking portrayal of the possession of a young girl, introducing now-standard possession movie elements like levitation, vomit, profanity and body contortions.”
If the site is correct and this is how we view demon possession, it is little wonder why many people have difficulty relating this morning’s scripture. But what would it look like if we made an intentional decision to separate our understanding of demon possession? The view depicted in movies like the Exorcist could be understood as entertainment (or not, depending on whether or not you enjoy these types of movies or books).
How might a modern view of demon possession and exorcism be described?
What if we began to think of despair, loneliness, fear, doubt, guilt, grief and a host of other emotions that steal our joy…that keep us bound …as forms of demons? And what might it look like if we understood that it was our job to exorcise them? Before we dismiss the idea too quickly it might be helpful to examine the scripture in more detail.
Vs 21:They went to Capernaum. . . (1)
While we cannot be sure how long his public activity lasted, Capernaum seems to have been the base for Jesus’ activities prior to his final trip to Jerusalem. Capernaum was a lakeside location that supported the fishing industry.
Capernaum was “not a sought-after spot, but a good place to get away from, with easy access across the Sea of Galilee to any side.”
Vs 22: Jesus went to the synagogue and began to teach . . .
“Synagogue” is a Greek word that literally means a gathering of people. They were used for a variety of communal needs: as schools (Josephus, Antiquities 16.43), for communal meals (Josephus, Antiquities 14.214-216), as a place to collect and distribute charity (Matt 6:2), and for political meetings (Josephus, Life 276-289). Worship also took place in first-century synagogues, although this would not develop into something like modern Jewish synagogue worship until much later. Nonetheless, there were reading and interpreting the Torah and Prophets. Interpreting would involve questions – lively debate.
Synagogue worship wasn’t a biblical requirement; many first-century Jews probably didn’t consider it necessary. The focus was on the Temple. We have no idea how large the group was. The ruler of the synagogue could invite someone to teach- the assumption is that Jesus was invited.
Vs 23 The teaching is interrupted by a man possessed by an evil spirit..or unclean
Vs 24 Unclean spirit ..look at the pronoun used: US
Vs 25 Jesus speaks to unclean spirit – “Be silent and come out of him.”
This is not a little thing, Jesus is acknowledging that the demonization is part of the person’s reality, but it does not define the person. If we understand that, we could help the people we relate to see that despair, loneliness, fear, doubt, guilt, grief and a host of other emotions that keep them bound are not who they are.
That is important because it is easy for these emotions to swallow up your life. I think we can all share stories of people we know where this has been the case. They are struggling with something and eventually it defines them. We can exorcise those demons by helping people understand that those feelings do not define them. We do not do it by yelling at them or shaking them but by patiently loving them, walking with them – believing in them, especially when they can’t believe in themselves. We never give up.
We can exorcise the demons. Despair can be cast out by encouragement; loneliness through companionship…fear through prayer and information. And so it goes . . .
I think it is Christ’s love for the man that compelled the unclean spirit to leave his presence. Christ’s love for us compels our demons to leave. However, Christ’s love for us also compels us to help the people around us deal with the negativity and the pain in their lives.
At times we are the ones struggling with things that are limiting us…stealing our joy. At other times we are the ones that can help someone break free of the chains. If we understand this, movies like The Exorcist will no longer define our understanding of demons and we won’t have any problems relating to this gospel account.
(1)John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan L. Reed, Excavating Jesus: Beneath the Stones, Behind the Texts (HarperSanFrancisco, 2001) devote several pages to a discussion of Capernaum in the First Century (pp. 81-97).