What is unclean?

Gospel: Mark 1:21-28

 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.

How might we claim this reading of Jesus in the synagogue for ourselves; that is, how can it be more than a somewhat abstract demonstration of his power over evil?  Can it be a reading which is personal to us, and say something about a kairosa-significant-time-is-now fulfilment in our own lives? (cf Mark 1:15 the kairos is fulfilled.)

What is Jesus doing in his teaching? I like Mark Davis' comments on this.

The two options here are ‘teaching as having authority’ or ‘teaching as the scribes.’ I don’t take this to be a harsh criticism of the scribes, as if their teaching were boring, wrong, or weak. In fact, my suspicion is that "teaching as the scribes" is exactly what people expect in the synagogue – their teaching is a close adherence to the scripture, their authority is subordinated to the authority of Moses or the prophets, etc. The scribes’ teaching would be biblical teaching. For Jesus to be ‘teaching as having authority,’ might be something like the Matthean phrase, "You have heard it was said (in the scriptures) …, but I say to you …."

If Jesus is teaching as if he, and not Moses, has authority, it is not unusual that the listeners would be ‘astounded,’ the root of which is ‘to strike.’ At this point, the astonishment may be an impressed, bewildered, or scandalized sort. (Mark Davis)

We know how easily people can be upset by a preacher or teacher who does not follow the accepted norms.  It is not necessary for a speaker betray the faith tradition for this to happen, only that the speaker crosses the commonly expected boundaries or local habits of presentation. So if Jesus was teaching in a prophetic role at variance with the settled orthodoxy— in Matthew he says God desires mercy, not sacrifice—  we would certainly expect him to have a destabilising effect.

There is a particular aspect of this destabilisation which I wish to highlight.  It is possible to scandalise people by not conforming to the normal prejudices of a community. As a guest preacher I drew the ire of a member of the congregation for not preaching for the high (and distant) pulpit.  I had judged it appropriate to preach from the lectern, much closer to the congregation to help the presentation be gentler as I sought to confront some of our prejudices in a contentious situation. Another member of the congregation, known for his quiet, gentle, and courteous manners, came up to me at the end of the service, shaking with rage. I had refused to conform to his prejudice about the situation under discussion, and appropriately condemn alleged wrong-doers.

If Jesus was not conforming to the prejudices of the community by joining in the condemnation of certain others, or the outrage against them,  this would destabilise people much more deeply. This is because such a refusal undermines the boundaries of a community— the way it knows and defines itself—by refusing to validate the community boundaries. So, perhaps counter-intuitively, innocence; that is, a consistent living out of the reign of God is deeply destabilising. In his chapter called "Re-Imagining Forgiveness" James Alison quotes Jesus saying

"Behold I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves." Rather than this being an instruction about prudence, as it is usually made out to be, I suggest that this is what acting out forgiveness in the world looks like. It looks like knowing you are dealing with dangerous people, who are more than likely to be deeply destabilised by your innocence and because of that seek to lynch you. (On Being Liked p43)

Another way to express forgiveness is to say that a person who forgives refuses to insist on the maintenance of their boundaries and privilege. I mean innocence not in the sense of a naiveté where someone takes advantage of us, but innocence in the sense of the kind of dignity which is so un-invested in our normal human desire to maintain our status and safety, that it frightens people.

By Mark 3:6 the Pharisees had gone "out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him." The and immediately of  3:6 continues the urgency , brittleness and destabilisation, of our text this week in Mark 1:21-28, where NRSV hides the fact that and immediately (καὶ εὐθὺς) is present by saying "and when the Sabbath came he entered the synagogue and taught." The Greek is clear: καὶ εὐθὺς (and immediately) τοῖς σάββασιν εἰσελθὼν εἰς τὴν συναγωγὴν ἐδίδασκεν (on the Sabbath having come into the synagogue he was teaching.)

NRSV then hides καὶ εὐθὺς again! "Just then there was in their synagogue," it says in verse 23. The Greek is clear: 23 καὶ εὐθὺς (and immediately) ἦν ἐν τῇ συναγωγῇ αὐτῶν ἄνθρωπος (there was in the synagogue of them a man…)

καὶ εὐθὺς heightens the tension. In such urgency we expect almost something to "snap." And it does.

23 καὶ εὐθὺς ἦν ἐν τῇ συναγωγῇ αὐτῶν ἄνθρωπος ἐν πνεύματι ἀκαθάρτῳ, καὶἀνέκραξεν
And immediately there was in their synagogue a man in an unclean spirit, and it squawked out.  (Mark Davis)

I think Davis makes an important point in the translation above. NRSV says "a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out," but Davis wishes to separate the affliction from the person.

"A man in an unclean spirit," what a powerful description. My spouse recently alerted me to an article, "The Likely Cause of Addiction Has Been Discovered, and It’s Not What You Think" (Johann Hari, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/johann-hari/the-real-cause-of-addicti_b_6506936.html), which separated persons with addiction from their addictions. [It is a fascinating article. AP] The entire article is worth reading, but this comment is especially poignant with reference to this man: "It's not you. It's your cage." I find the gospels to be very perceptive in their language about persons with demons, acknowledging that the demonization is part of the person’s reality, but not the person himself. (sic)

For that reason, I am translating the implied subject of "cried out" as "it" and not as "he." I attribute the voice to the unclean spirit, in which the man is caged, as opposed to the man himself. (I will continue using ‘it’ even when the gender of future references are male). (Mark Davis) [Andrew: The author of the article Mark Davis quotes, has an interesting past. I find his argument persuasive, but his latest article is also strongly criticised. That said, I do not think it affects the point Mark Davis makes.]

So the man is caged in an unclean spirit rather than it being in him or being some unclean part of him. My observation is that although we sometimes embrace freedom from our cage, there are other times when we are most upset if our cage is rattled: I am a safe prisoner, even if I am a prisoner— go away! Don’t threaten the safety I have. This is the experience of being threatened, or destabilised, by the innocence of the kingdom of God.

But there is an unclean spirit in the synagogue. This is not a motif about Christian Jesus being superior to Jewish people— he was a Jew, or about some failing of Jewish religion; that’s an othering reading encouraged by our inherent racism. The story is about uncleanliness in the face of holiness; it refers to the uncleanliness which is in all people in the face of holiness. This man is "everyman," and every woman, destabilised in the presence of the holy. He, or rather the thing in him, and speaking through him, is quite clear about what has provoked it: the holy one of God, whom it fears will destroy it. And I suspect the man is deeply fearful that he may be destroyed along with the cage: look upon the face of God and die. (This is not necessarily a conscious thing: witness the need for people to make jokes or other inappropriate behaviours in response to deeply moving events; we are afraid of holiness.)

There seem to me to be two errors I have made in the past when reading this. The first is to make an easy equivalence between an unclean spirit and a mental illness, which is almost the default interpretive method in my part of the church for dealing with stories of demons and unclean spirits. This methodology immediately lets those of us who have decided we are not mentally ill off the hook of this story, for it says that we are not unclean, and allows us to pin uncleanliness on those who we decide are mentally ill. And it lets us forget that we, too, are unclean in the face of the holy, by virtue of our humanity.     

The second error has been to scorn, or at least make light of, the reality of spiritual forces, and to make the easy interpretation that the story is a metaphor for Jesus' mastery over evil. This is a convenient demythologising ploy, but also a neutralising and defanging of the story, because by focussing only on Jesus' power, I am excusing myself from asking what unclean means; excusing myself both from dealing with what it means for me to be unclean,  and from any real exploration of we are actually talking about when we say someone has an unclean spirit.

Before seeking to answer these questions, there is one more dynamic contained in the text.  

But Jesus rebuked him, saying, ‘Be silent, and come out of him!

The thing living in the man is correct about Jesus, for he is the holy one of God, but Jesus bids it be silent. In theological college we learned this feature of Mark is called the Messianic Secret. Davis' article, which I have found very helpful this week, notes four common suggestions about Mark's purpose. We join him with the fourth possibility:

My sentiments lie with a 4th possibility: Jesus is trying to control the shape of the message. In numerous places in Mark’s gospel – particularly Jesus’ rough exchange with Simon Peter in 8:31-38 and the entry into Jerusalem in 11:1-11, Jesus will not separate any notion of his messiahship, kingship, or lordship apart from his destiny to be rejected, suffer, die, and be raised on the 3rd day – all of which are things that happen to him, which he endures as the messiah. (Mark Davis)

We are well aware of the propensity of church to embrace violent power, kingship, and lordship, apart from rejection, suffering, and death. If I did want to make connections between the unclean spirit of this story and what we commonly call mental illness, I could not ignore the fact that much of the delusional religious language I have heard, and had described to me, embraces the religious language of violent power and kingship. I have sometimes wondered just where ill-considered theology ends and illness begins.

I am inclined to think that all of us "are on a continuum," and that there is no clear line between the "normal" and "the pathological ones," when it comes to mental health.  (Gabor Mate) We are beings who are being created, who fit more or less well into the norms of our society, and who bear all the shortcomings of being human. "Unclean" cannot be pinned on the one person.

Davis goes on to suggest a fifth point which is connected with controlling the shape of the message.

Having said that, I have lately begun to favor a 5th possibility, which I have not read among scholars, so one ought to take it with two grains of salt. My sense is that the gospel of Mark is doing two things: 1) Heralding the good news about Jesus; and 2) Propagating the movement of the Reign of God. Obviously the two cannot be fully separated and each is interactively dependent on the other. But, my feeling is that Mark is not promoting a Jesus cult; where Jesus alone is the location of God and Jesus alone is the message itself. Jesus himself says, "If any will be my disciple, let them take up their cross …." The way to follow Jesus is to participate, to be part of the movement that Jesus is announcing. The reign of God is realized in Jesus; and Jesus points beyond himself for his disciples to be a part of it. I see the occasional "tell no one" events less as a "secret" than a redirection, away from simply being amazed at and broadcasting how greatly Jesus is the embodiment of the reign of God toward participating in it oneself. (I have added the bold italics.)

So, in all the urgency of καὶ εὐθὺς Jesus is slowing things down: Don't rush to grand statements of power, don't claim great levels of understanding and wisdom; instead, join me in the slow creation of your humanity; participate in the coming into being of Kingdom through the way of the cross. Doing this brings us into direct conflict with the unclean spirit. It says not that we are still being created but that the unclean spirt within which we have been formed needs to be healed and brought under the Reign of God.

Indeed, unclean is the language of boundary markers and exclusion; it is the language of those who gain identity and some stability by the exclusion of others. The scapegoat is unclean. (cf Leviticus 16) We humans have

a tendency to hold onto life at the expense of victims, and think we are just to do so… and there appears to be no human culture or society that we know of that is not dependent on [this tendency] in some way. (James Alison On Being Liked pp36)

So of course there is an unclean spirit in the synagogue! We humans create unclean as a category to define ourselves over against; it is an exercise of naming and designating power which kills, both metaphorically, and in fact, to allow us a) to survive the chaos of and violence of unchecked human rivalry, and b) to avoid thinking about our own death; I am clean, therefore it will not come near me. The irony of the unclean spirit in the synagogue is that the unclean spirit  is not in some other person, but that every one of us is in it, formed by it since our earliest socialisation.

Jesus rattles this cage; that is, he provokes the spirit which has us caged. He destabilises us.

We shy away from language that suggests there are spiritual entities which have an independent reality separate from us. Whatever we conclude about that debate, what we might prefer to call "complexes" or "conditioning" has a level of independence, even a power over us, which seems undeniable.  A person makes a significant break from— wins a victory over— some aspect of their past, and then suddenly begins to have nightmares about obviously related issues. I trust my instincts about a pastoral issue,  and as a result, am able to help someone in quite dramatic fashion. But that night, I am full of doubt and self-loathing. I say about such experiences that when we make some level of escape from the spirit of our conditioning, the "Empire Strikes Back." All the childhood conditioning that tells me I am a useless shit rears up in protest and retaliation, screaming at me, desperate to regain control, or reinstate the norm.

The reaction of trauma issues when we transcend the behaviours in which they have caged us, may be quite obvious to us. But there is something more subtle and all-embracing about the caging of us which I shall try to illustrate from my own recent experience. I am a long distance cyclist. On Friday, I pulled off an almost technically perfect long ride. I covered 165 kms with the road temperatures mostly sitting between 45 and 48 degrees Celsius. (For American friends, this translates to 100 miles at 118F.) At these temperatures, you do things correctly, or get very sick. I had a really good time— lots of thinking, plus plain simple enjoyment— and was well pleased with myself, arriving home still relatively fresh.

But on Saturday, I was plunging into depression, and distressed to the point of being immobilised. I've felt this after other long rides, too. All my dissatisfactions with life "roll in like the tide." The internal voices say:
You’re useless.
People don’t like you.
It’s too hard.
You’re wrong.
You’re a failure.
There's no point; give up!

This is the language of my childhood conditioning. It's the empire striking back.

The temptation is to avoid what it is which has provoked "the empire." It’s easy to say, "You’re just tired." No, I’m no more tired than if I’d gone to bed at 11.30 instead of 10pm. Four or five hundred kilometres in a day is tired, not a mere 160.

What’s really going on is that riding in such a heat is a delight, and a celebration of physicality; it grounds me in the creation. It is also a deliberate withdrawal from, and contradiction of, all the urging of my upbringing to be good, to be acceptable, and to fit inside the boundaries of my society and culture. Proper 63 year olds don't do this stuff; they’ve grown up; they earn money, instead of wasting all this time riding. They’ve become a "somebody," in a good job; I’m barely employed. They're working at things of value, saving the church, instead of out playing.

But riding is not only an expression that is counter cultural. It is also the spiritual basis of my discipleship; it sets me up to think, and write, and gain a little wisdom. It humbles me as it makes all my physical and mental limitations clear. I work through my frustrations with life, and purge a lot of the stuff I once tipped or projected onto others. There is something of God met in this, especially on longer rides. Riding is not my recreation, it is a very significant part of my creation.

More than anything else I do, riding highlights my dis-ease with my cultural conditioning. It provokes the unclean spirit which holds me, because that part of me which knows it is in some way being destroyed or transcended. It rattles the cage of the me which wishes to fit in and be liked, and to be undisturbed. The more I ride, and the more I seek to imitate the Christ, the greater the reaction of this unclean thing, for it is being destroyed. Or being transcended, for I take Jung's point that 95% of our shadow is "pure gold."

With Jesus, I am in the presence of the holy.  When my cage is rattled, will I be like James and John, Simon and Andrew, with all their faults, and leave the nets? Or will I stay in my cage?

An addendum: (24/1)

Today we read the Gospel text in Bible Study (1:21-28) and I asked people for their first impressions, and then for their sense of what being "with an unclean spirit" might mean. (We work from the NRSV.)

Irena knocked my socks off: "It's like the person has been dipped in something, that something now has a hold on them; it affects everything they do."

So Jesus has been introduced to Israel by John the Baptist as someone who will baptise in holy spirit, and we see Jesus is also baptised by the Holy One. And now, here in the synagogue is a man baptised in another spirit! (An unclean one)

I remember Jim Punton commenting about the noisy piety around the word "holy." He suggested that at root there is something here that justifies us saying the holy spirit is the different spirit. Jesus baptises with a different spirit.

We also looked at the kai euthus that NRSV obscures this week. (See above.)

It occurs to me that one of the things it does is to link together the events from Jesus' baptism (and immediately) is in 1:10 as he comes out of the water; 1:12 where spirit "and immediately" drives him into the wilderness; and 1:18 and 1:20 where the "and immediately" is the response of the disciples until this week— a bit like "the next day" links the events in John 1.

Which means the one dipped in holy spirit, comes with authority to announce the kingdom at hand and call disciples, and a) the  caging spirit recognises he is holy, while those who consider themselves clean recognise he is different— a new teaching— but cannot see holiness!


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!

Key Reference: Mark Davis, Separating a Man from his Cage

A note on the phrase "the empire strikes back," which is not just a dad joke around a movie title. Empire (specifically that of Rome in the time of Jesus) is the ruling structure of a culture based in the myth of redemptive violence. In such a culture the underlying dynamic is to seek to create peach and purity by expelling (even killing) the other, or unclean. Wink says "It is the dominant myth in contemporary America," and although we have less guns, we watch the same movies; that is, his article describes many of the dynamics of contemporary Australia.

And about cycling: Cycling is what I do now. There was a time I lived in the rhythm of a Daily Office. It is one spiritual vehicle, not a general necessity. And like any spiritual discipline, it can become an idol; dare I say, even unclean.

Also on One Man's Web
Mark 1:21-28 (2006) and Mark 1:21-28 - Authority and Evil (2009 adaptation)
Mark 1:21-28 - Power Sandwiches (2012)
Mark 1:21-28 - Authority (2012)
Mark 1:21-28 - Hold my hand (2015)



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