Grace to you and peace from God our Father and His Son our Lord Jesus Christ.
The short, and seemingly insignificant story, of the healing of the man with the unclean spirit in the synagogue at Capernaum, contains a profound insight into one of the most perplexing issues human beings and civilization attempt to understand and confront.
The story begins with Jesus and his disciples entering a synagogue in Capernaum to teach on the Sabbath. His instruction is well received by the congregation. Scripture recounts, however, a man with an unclean spirit approached Jesus, crying 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.” The Gospel describes these people as either demon possessed or as having an unclean spirit.
For two millennia, Christians have struggled to define what unclean spirits means and how those spirits possess or influence people. Some scholars suggest an unclean spirit was just the imprecise way the first century defined mental illness. Others argue a supernatural power was at work, and we ought not “explain away” demonic possession, as an illusion or fabrication.
The Gospel of Mark takes the activity of demonic forces seriously and realistically. What we encounter from the beginning of this story is the context of the power of God in Jesus, confronting the supernatural power of the demonic.
However we understand unclean spirits and possession by them, the gospel of Jesus Christ compels us to address them. Jesus may have hoped to speak about his new ministry or about what love and justice and freedom mean. Instead, this man with an unclean spirit immediately confronts him. We face a similar situation. We may want to talk about a new ministry or the upcoming Super Bowl. Today, however, we come face to face with a man possessed by an unclean spirit and must ask how this event challenges us.
The unclean spirit understands the identity and nature of Jesus and his power over unclean spirits. Jesus rebukes the unclean spirit saying, “be silent, and come out of him.” The unclean spirit cries with a loud voice and comes out of the man.
The miracle has an impact on the people in the synagogue. We read, “They 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.” The power of Jesus to overcome the unclean spirit vindicates his claim to be God’s chosen one.
Biblical interpreters of this text wrestle with understanding the nature of the unclean spirit. Is the spirit simply a physical illness or does the spirit represent a demonic power modern sensibilities often find provocative and unsubstantiated by modern science? I argue the meaning of our Gospel derives from how we understand the unclean spirit.
To sort out the dilemma of the meaning of the unclean spirit, let us recall the C. S. Classic, the Screwtape Letter. “The Screwtape Letters concern the Christian view of demons and the ways they affect human lives. The book takes the form of a series of letters purportedly written between Wordwood, a junior devil, and his uncle Screwtape, a devil, on how to tempt human beings to commit sins and damn themselves. The letters of Screwtape to his nephew, Wormwood, may be fictional, but they contain great truth by embodying the difficulty modern humans have identifying and confronting evil.
Many people today have no time for belief in devils, demons, unclean spirit or the devil. These are fantastical ideas, the product of an overactive imagination. In other words, belief evil somehow or another takes form in a supernatural being has fallen on hard times. Many people no longer believe that way anymore. But there is a problem; the problem is the continued existence of evil. When we read about 2000 villagers slaughtered in a village in Nigeria, the problem of evil arises inevitably again. We see it daily in other places and in other ways.
This past week our nation observed the 76th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland at the end of World War II. One commentator who recently visited the camp said the stench of death still can be smelt at the camp. That is a way of saying the problem of evil perpetrated in that camp remains with us to this day. We can’t shake evil.
Another news story announced the South African death squad leader known as “Prime Evil” who organized the murder and torture of anti-apartheid activists will be freed from prison. Eugene de Kock, now 71, was sentenced to life in jail plus 212 years for the numerous crimes he committed in the 1980s and 1990s but was granted parole after two decades behind bars. If you saw a picture of de Kock, he doesn’t look like evil at all. But like someone who might live in your neighborhood. I am reminded of what C. S. Lewis wrote. about evil.
We recall the description C. S. Lewis offered about how evil operates today. He wrote: “I live in the Managerial Age, in a world of “Admin.” The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid “dens of crime” that Dickens loved to paint. It is not done even in concentration camps and labor camps. In those we see its final result. But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voices. Hence, naturally enough, my symbol for Hell is something like the bureaucracy of a police state or the office of a thoroughly nasty business concern.”
What we learn from C. S. Lewis and what we learn from the Gospel of story of the man with the unclean spirit is this. We can debate the origin of evil, but we cannot doubt its’ presence and effect upon us and human society. Evil is not something outside of us, but inside of us. The story of the south African terror squad leader reminds of us what the writer Hannah Arendt wrote about Adolph Eichmann who directed the Nazi concentration camps. “So many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal.” In other words, the worst devil is us and we need to deal with that fact.
We affirm in the face of ever present evil that Christ alone is the Holy One of God who alone has power to defeat evil. Jesus has taken sides with us against all that is brutal and antithetical to the God of love who has become incarnate in Jesus Christ. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.