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Visions from The Catacombs, Week Before February 1, 2015

Mark 1:21-28

21They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24and he cried out, “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.” 25But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” 26And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” 28At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

What I am Learning:

In the Gospels of Luke and Matthew the story includes birth narratives (which we mostly just squish together into one story).

The Gospel of Mark includes no such story. Jesus was introduced to us very quickly as a public figure who builds on the ministry of John the Baptist. John says that Jesus’ status is very much higher than his.

The Biblical scholars from the social science school tell us that a key part of first-century culture in the Middle-East was your social status. Of course, status is important to us as well. But for them your status, that is the status of your family, at your birth determined

  • What you could do
  • Who you would relate to
  • Who you could look in the eyes
  • Who would talk first

In Matthew and Luke, Jesus is called the Son of God to stake the claim that Jesus’, although born of a poor family with low status, really shared God’s status and so it was right to listen to him.

In Mark this text is the one of the first public indications of his status. Now you might wonder if the voice at Jesus’ baptism wasn’t the first public indication of his status. I don’t think so, as in Mark the voice is heard only by Jesus, not by the crowd.

First century people thought there was not only a ranking of status for human beings but this ranking included angelic and demonic as well with God having the highest status. So when Jesus is teaching in the synagogue and a person with a demon speaks to him and Jesus casts the demon out it is clear that Jesus has a very high status. The demon knows his name the same way we know the president’s name. Jesus does not heal the man with the demon because of some personal super-power, but because Jesus had a higher status than the demon and so could order it out of the man. A reader (or more likely a hearer) of Mark’s gospel would thus understand that Jesus’ status is high and so he is worth listening to.

Now I know that this is weird

However, this story is another example of how different first-century Palestinian culture is from ours in a couple of key ways.

First, in Western cultures the individual is of paramount importance so we assume that Jesus healing the man is the key issue. But if you read the text what people find important in the text is about Jesus authority to command unclean spirits. This authority gave them reason to consider his “new teaching.”

Second, in Western cultures we tend to focus on the question of what demonic possession is and how it could be cured from within our scientific worldview. Preachers will typically focus on this person having some kind of mental illness and “isn’t it great that Jesus healed this person.” This sounds okay, but it begs a really important question: How did Jesus heal this “mentally ill” person and does it pass scientific muster? Is it verifiable and replicable and so on.

While it is important to relate first century culture to our own it is not respectful of the text and the culture in which it was written to import words of the story into our culture unconsciously. When we do this, and we do it often, we are acting out of a kind of cultural imperialism that results in us mistaking what was the likely intent of the text. We end up ignoring what seemed important to the people of the day and so misunderstand the character of Jesus’ leadership in that culture and thus his leadership in our own.

To read the Bible is to engage in cross-cultural work. Cross-cultural work is difficult and we cannot be certain that we understand everything or even anything. But I feel that this kind of work can at least get us in the ballpark with respect to the Bible.

First century people believed in demons. That does not mean we have to. I may not believe in demons, but I do believe in the demonic. I believe that there are unconscious forces in people and in society that bind, demean, influence and drive people to damage themselves, others and the earth.

In the story, Jesus does not allow himself to be distracted by answering the question asked by the demon. The demonic often wants to distract us. Jesus instead commands the demonic to be silent and to come out of the man.

Part of what the text is saying is that since we are a part of Jesus’ family that we have the same capacity. This story implies that when we are confronted with demonic powers that warp and destroy God’s beloved and God’s beloved creation that we can resist the distracting questions of the demonic and release people from them.

Racism is one such demonic power that continues to destroy humans and human society.

In my ministry with St. Philip’s we are holding interfaith dialogue with Muslims and Buddhists. I am organizing an interfaith prayer service in response to the school shooting there. On of our members was accosted by a fellow teacher. She asked how we could pray with Muslims. This member of St. Philip’s did not buy into the question she asked. He simply said, “It is important that we pray together.” She said, “But those people “behead other people!” thus she labeled all Muslim people as terrorists and murderers. He did not argue with her about her assertion. He simply said, “Even more reason. Jesus tells us to pray for our enemies and to love them.”

The demon of racism and fear that infects this poor woman may not have released her yet. But we can see that there is the possibility of healing in this conversation. There is an invitation to healing.

May we, like Jesus, call the demonic out and remember that as God’s beloved children, we have the authority to do so.