Week of 29 January- Epiphany 4
Gospel: Mark 1:21-28
Any regular participant at church teas knows sandwiches require attention and discernment. The bread can tell you a lot; some is cut too thick, or is dry. Other bread seems to have a moistness that borders on the culinary sublime; what’s more, the artists can do it with the crusts left on. The filling is crucial; thin, oily slices of meat can compromise beautiful bread. In contrast, someone in my congregation cuts thick slices of bread, which look dry and unappetising. Yet their curried egg filling makes the bread delicious. Somehow, the filling and the thick bread are made for each other.
You can only truly appreciate a sandwich by considering bread and filling together.
Mark is full of sandwiches. He begins a story or a teaching, inserts a filling, and then returns to the original subject.
This week’s reading is a Markan sandwich. Like any sandwich, we will only appreciate it when we look at the bread and the filling together. Rather than wolfing the story down, and moving on to the next one, we should pause to inspect the sandwich for its artistry. How does this work?
21 They 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, throwing him into convulsions 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.
Clearly, the subject is the authority of Jesus’ teaching; people were astounded by it. It is contrasted with the teaching of the scribes, who were supposed to be the authorities when it came to understanding scripture. Jesus is the one who had authority, says Mark. (22) He re-states this authority on the other slice of the sandwich: “What is this? A new teaching—with authority!” (27) (Note the way the phrasing heads off those who would disparage Jesus on the basis of “a new teaching.” New or not, it has authority.)
Mark could have left the teaching story at verse 22. Jesus has come (in verse 14) teaching good news that the kingdom is at hand—it seems an age ago; last week, but it is only a breath or two away—but by making a sandwich, he fills out the nature of this authority. To see more about his authority, look at the filling.
The filling is a power play. It is a direct challenge to Jesus’ authority, which has just been recognised by the people. “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?”
In other words, “What are you doing here, Andrew Prior?” It is not a greeting; it is an attack by someone who is not happy to see Jesus in that synagogue. “Have you come here to foist your left wing rubbish on us? I know who you are: you’re another one of those Uniting Church ministers.” This is the pre-emptive attack method of a politician upon on an unwelcome journalist, who arrives at his press conference.
There is rich irony in the event. The spirit names Jesus to dis-empower him, but actually only manages to identify The Powerful One for us: he is Jesus of Nazareth.
Claiming knowledge was a power game then among demons – as it is now! Naming is supposed to allow one to control what or who is named – just watch the way names are used in interviews! The demoniac gets his christology right! He will not be the first to think that getting the theology right is a fine way to silence Jesus. Loader
Then the spirit seeks to warn the assembly of Jesus’ agenda; “have you come to destroy us?” but manages only to tell people the good news. Jesus has come to destroy the powers!
And the spirit claims authority over Jesus. “I know who you are!” In our politician’s example above, the claim to knowing draws its power from slander and ridicule. “He’s a Uniting Church minister!” The pollie expects people to scorn me on that account. In the psychology of the time of Mark, I think the claim to know, carries its own power apart from slander and ridicule. The ability to name Jesus for what he was; the holy one of God, should have given the spirit power over Jesus. Instead, Jesus shows that his power as the holy one of God is greater. He rebukes the spirit, and forces it to leave the person.
As the audience of this theatre, we have seen Jesus come with a new teaching. We hear the other characters on the stage tell us this new teaching has authority. Then it is challenged in a moment of drama, and Jesus demonstrates that he is not all talk, like the scribes; he has real power and authority. He can even drive out the spirits.
So, the meat enhances the bread. It gives it flavour and content. You know that if we attempt to take the meat on its own, without the bread, we will have a mess. The bread gives context to the meat. Power is to be used in the context of the “at hand,” and coming, kingdom of God. It is to be used in the context of the authority of Jesus. Power for its own sake will leave our hands full of a mess. We will become the evil spirit, even; power working against the purposes of God.
We can never consider the filling or the bread on its own if we want to appreciate a sandwich. Each informs the other.
Jesus has come preaching the victory, the euangelion, of the kingdom of God. When he’s challenged in the synagogue, he shows his power is real. In the context of the holy, he is the one who holds the authority, not the unclean spirit. Perhaps that spirit, (“have you come to destroy us?”) represents the religious system of the time, to some extent.
Now we will see him go out of the holy place into the house of everyday life. His power works there, too, with the healing of Peter’s mother in law. It is real.
I wish to explore the nature of spirits, and spiritual power. Questions about this lurk in the pews, and are frequently left unanswered.
- Some of us are simply embarrassed by the stories of exorcism and healing. They do not fit our worldview, and need to be explained away.
- Others swallow it all; sometimes I think Mark would look with surprise at Christians who try to be faithful by saying they really can throw mountains into the sea if they have enough faith, (11:23) and would say, “Good grief, that’s not what I meant! Can’t you read?!”
- And others of us are well able to understand that we can’t make fig trees wither in a moment, but feel we should be able to work acts of power like healing or exorcism. Maybe we recognise things are not as clear-cut as the first group believe.
The symptoms are clear; we are ignorant and confused. By our acceptance of the story that science can explain everything; explanation = knowledge = name something = control over it, our culture has made itself illiterate in the mysteries and vagaries of the human psyche. To put it another way; we claim, via science, that we can explain anything. That leaves us powerless when we meet something our science cannot explain; something outside the competency of our science.
It means the first group listed above, tend to deny there is anything happening. “Science” cannot see it, so it is not there. This group cannot accept that anything really happened in that synagogue. It has to be superstition, or fabricated, or misunderstood; it cannot actually have happened.
Group two are credulous, and in danger of swallowing any hokum. They are unwilling, or unable, to apply the powerful and appropriate sceptical method of science to the phenomena they witness.
Like it or not, we have to accept where we are in all this. We cannot simply shed, or cast aside, the scepticism of our culture. It has been brewing and refining itself over centuries. We are indelibly stained by it. It is how we see. It was not inevitable, but the way we have developed the technology to fly to the moon and harness penicillin, means we can no longer properly understand what happened in the synagogue.
We can accept or reject the veracity of the phenomena related in the story. We can hypothesise about the method or process, but we do not understand. The phenomenon is not something which fits into the modes of thinking which are part of our being as 21st century people.
We lack judgement. We are as culturally limited and blinkered as the tribal folk who were serenely unimpressed by Neil Armstrong’s footsteps down onto the moon. They had seen it years before in another movie!
We cannot simply adopt the world view of Mark’s people.
Living with Pitjantjatjara people, I witnessed things that scared the life out of me. This was common for those outsider Europeans who had some sense of the spiritual. There was naked power in the air. The Pitjantjatjaras could say, along with Tony Hillerman’s Mrs. Cigaret, "I told him he ought to get someone to take him to Gallup and get his chest x-rayed because maybe he had one of those sicknesses that white people cure." The outsiders, however, could not reverse that insight anywhere near as easily. Many remained acutely sceptical or uncomfortable. Those of us who recognised there was a reality, and not just superstition, remained largely ignorant and without power.
Bringing the insights we gained back into our own culture was difficult. Without the bread of Pitjantjatjara society holding it together, the filling fell apart. You can’t have the meat without the sandwich.
We need to rebuild our appreciation of the spiritual. Our problem is not the action of exorcism; we are understand with increasing clarity that science does not have all the answers, and that there may be other ways to know and live. Our problem is trying to emulate the power of that exorcism, out of context. We are dealing with what we don’t know, and trying to hold it without the bread around it.
Part of this is that we wish to vindicate ourselves! If I can do this work of power, then it will prove I have the gospel; I have heard people say this, and words like it. We do not recognise the bread of Mark’s sandwich, which makes it clear that the power is for the kingdom’s coming, not for self-vindication.
If I dare say so, we too often, in my tradition, read a book claiming to be spiritual, which is really a cultural grab bag of 20th century American Pentecostalism, and its hang-ups, rather than true spiritual wisdom. Far too often, we do not tap into the wisdom of the church over 20 centuries in these matters.
In any case, I suspect much of that wisdom is lost to us; it is not book learning; it is “hands on” wisdom, apprenticed, disciplined, an art, and always careful. It has its context. In its own culture names can be applied to things, perhaps. We have lost that art. We can feel our way in some things. But we do not know what we are dealing with. And we are left in a place where only a high degree of agnosticism is appropriate. I have an example of this here, from another article.
I received a phone call one morning from a young woman in a house near our church. She was badly frightened by "things moving on their own" and could I please help them stop it.
I found two nice country kids who had just begun university. One of the families had bought the house for them to live in, and the kids had taken on a couple of boarders, also uni students, to help with the rent. All had gone well for most of the first term until the boy came back to the house late one night when everyone else was out and found things moving on their own. The ladle in the kitchen was swinging on its hook. Various doors were shutting loudly on their own. It had been a frightening experience which he had at first written off to a breeze through a window, or something similar.
A similar experience happened to the girl a few days later. The incidents continued… it often sounded as though someone was moving around the house when no one else was home, and as they compared notes and tried to work out what was going on they found no rhyme or reason in the happenings. They could rule out pranks. By the time they rang me, a complete stranger, they were badly frightened, all the more so because no one would believe them.
I visited with one of our church elders. He was an wizened old war veteran, hard-headed and sceptical. He thoroughly searched the outside of the house for cracking in the foundations, cracks in the soil and anything else he could think of. He didn't quite interrogate the young people, but by the end of our conversation they were clearly either quite genuine, or the two most accomplished liars and actors I have ever met.
I asked them about the others living in the house. One of their boarders, another 18 year old girl, had let her older boyfriend move in and share her room. Neither of them were particularly happy with this; l think the girl was a bit weird in their assessment. They were rather relieved that she and the boyfriend were moving out to go to Perth in fortnight or so. The other boarder was a typical young man… he heard and felt nothing. He was no hassle, came and went, paid the rent, and did his share of dishes.
What could I do? I told them how one of the really big stress inducers in life was to shift house. I pointed out how they were all in their first move from home, other than the live in boyfriend. Not only this, they were also beginning university with all its new pressures. The other girl was also beginning a sexual relationship, another new and high stress thing.
I also told them about how younger people, apparently more often young women who are under stress, seemed to be linked with poltergeist activity; i.e. a ghost who makes rapping and tapping noises and other disruptive events.
I said that on first assessment perhaps this might be an explanation… and suggested a course of action. We would pray for them and their safety. We would pray for the girl and her boyfriend. I suggested that we then wait and see what happened when she left. They were more than happy with this, so we prayed, and I left with a promise to return and the invitation to ring me any time.
The strange girl and her friend went to Perth, and all the odd things stopped happening. The young woman who had first rung me told me later how good it had been for them that someone had actually believed them… it had been very lonely, and hurtful, I suspect, to be laughed at and not taken seriously by friends and family. It almost sounded that being taken seriously was as important than the actual phenomena being stopped!
So what happened here? In the church it is often the case that we would say we "cast out an evil spirit." Others would say that we "laid a ghost to rest." A couple of members of the congregation told me how the history of the house was not happy… perhaps it had "a bad aura" which needed cleansing.
What really happened?
The facts are that two young people, impressionable and alone, found things moving, and heard noises, when there should have been stillness and silence. This kept happening and they could find no explanation that satisfied them. They were very frightened. We prayed. The happenings stopped around the time one resident of the house moved out.
Some religious theorems exist about poltergeists. Many people would say they scarcely deserve the term theorem… they are shaky hypotheses at best. And, really honestly, no one actually knows (in the terms of this essay) what prayer is or does.
I put an hypothesis to the kids and embarked on a course of action. It could not be repeated… the girl was not there to have another first boy friend and see if that made things move. We could not test if she really did make things move. Maybe the two country kids were so spooked that they really were imagining things… a few late nights, some co-incidence and stress, and being on your own in an empty, can be very convincing. Maybe what I did was really a sort of psychological trick… put their minds at ease with some action… showed some love in a prayer so they could relax. Or maybe they were causing the movement and the love and something to call the phenomena let them relax, and the telekinesis all stopped. And yes, perhaps it was all as I wondered… the girl was hooking into some bygone sadness of the place and it was being channelled through her into the present physical reality. The prayers and the power of God cleaned up the mess.
I have no idea… and never have had any more ideas than these. I don't think it is possible to know.
What I do know is that Christians, and people of other persuasions, are very prone to take a few facts, dress them up--- not just in an hypothesis that is not worthy of testing, or as a theorem that could be found wanting--- but dress them with the undeserved trappings of scientific Law. "God Said To Me….. The Bible says... You can cast out evil spirits....." This language often says more about social control in a church group, and about individual naïveté, than it does about what is really happening. It also says a lot about people's desire to be able to name and control fearsome and inexplicable (i.e. so far un-controlled) phenomena.
By contrast, others of us are sometimes perhaps unduly sceptical… giving our own (sceptical) hypotheses unwarranted authority. It would be better if we were all more honest about the few facts we have in the area of human experience, and more open about our hypothesising and tentative attempts to understand.
My elder and I were correct, I think. We were sceptical. We tested all the obvious explanations we could find. When they seemed to be ruled out, we embarked on a tentative hypothesis, but most of all we did it in Christian love. We loved the two young people in word and deed. We did not condemn the girl who may have been at the centre of the issue. We allowed a kind of holy agnosticism about what was going on.
I think that if that agnosticism is not present in the actions and theologising of a church, it has lost its ethical and Christian bearings. It has become prescriptive of people's experience and lost its respect for their humanity. This does not mean it should not take action over what it sees and dangerous or even evil. But it does avoid a lot of stupidity and damming of people with the theological and philosophical fashions of the moment.
What then, do we say about this story in Mark? The point is that it is there to highlight Jesus’ power, and the victory of the kingdom of God. It is not there as an event we should emulate as some proof of our discipleship, or as some proof of our spiritual understanding, or baptism.
We are called to follow Jesus (1:17) which means to imitate him in casting out the powers. I can live with that. I think that is a valid understanding. But how do I cast out the powers in my situation? Does it show the audience in the synagogue, or the debate, or Rundle Mall, that I teach with authority if I launch into some archaic, arcane form of words? It invites derision. Because it fails to communicate to the audience, it becomes an abuse.
If I stand on the floor of Synod and name personal attack and slander for what it is; playing the man, abusive, and a sign the speaker has no argument that will stand, then I have cast out an evil; I have named it. This is authority. It speaks to its time.
Neil Ormerod, Professor of Theology at the Australian Catholic university says this of Tony Abbot, the leader of the Opposition in Australia.
Although it was a popular stance, he was in effect attacking fundamental bases of our social and political system. I’m still amazed at how lightly he was treated by the media on this issue. Imagine the outcry if he had suggested that a priest accused of sexual abuse should not have that claim tested in court because we should support priests who are working for the good of the community! Certainly Australian troops are doing a great job in Afghanistan, and their morale is being affected by the proposed tribunal. But Abbott’s stance would license lawlessness.
This is naming evil. This is engaging the powers. It is to imitate the Christ.
There may be times when we must deal with a power that “white people cannot heal.” Then it is time for the minister, and any Christian, to tread just as carefully, and refer to the expert just as responsibly as we would for a medical illness. To take the advice of a brash Pentecostal pastor, or the author of a populist book, who does not even know his own culture well enough to listen to Darwin, let alone know his theology, is irresponsible. Loud voices and confident claims do constitute truth or authority; test the spirits! (1 John 4:1)
To mix metaphors horribly, we may find ourselves the meat in a most unpleasant sandwich of consequence, if we do not undertake such discipline. And the human cost of our foolishness may be appalling. Only a few people die in stupid attempts at exorcism in Australia, but I suspect other scarring is far more common.
Andrew Prior Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!