Authority and Evil

Feb 21 2006

Mark 1:21-28 They went to Capernaum; and when the Sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and 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." But Jesus rebuked him, saying, "Be silent, and come out of him!" And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 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." At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

He taught with authority-not as the scribes . It sounds like a person who was believable, who spoke out of personal experience, rather than quoting a host of authorities they have read. Some theology seems to be a list of what other people have said. It is dry and lifeless repetition of the tradition, with no new words of insight. Other theology is grounded in the experience of the author, and reflects that wisdom.

Of course, Mark writes in such a way as to enhance Jesus' standing versus the rivals of his readers. The message is that the "present day" scribes who speak out against them are without authority. This is a political document. But there is a truth here that goes beyond the political argument. Some people speak out of an apparent innate authority. Others merely parrot. Some seek to manipulate and blackmail our emotions. From others come words that lift our spirits, and which are heavy with integrity. This is the kind of speaker I imagine Mark's Jesus to be. Someone who spoke about an humanity growing reality.

In the drama of Mark many respond positively, and one the other way. Again this is the political aspect of the story. The story shows Jesus' power... even the evil spirits obey him, and the people are suitably impressed. It was de rigueur that a heroic figure could drive out evil spirits.

We should not let the literary needs and conventions of the time blind us to the reality. Authority provokes a response; those who speak without authority merely bore us. So in the story there were those whose hearts sang in response to his teaching, and there was the outrage of the unclean spirit in the man.

In our age we tend to poo hoo the idea of unclean spirits, but this is a true story; we simply do not name the illnesses and evils among is in the same way.

When Brother Roger of Taize is struck down by a disturbed woman in the midst of worship, we shrink from the true phrase ''unclean spirit ." When Romero is machine gunned to death as he says the Mass, we some how do not wish to say "evil spirits had captured the sorts of these men.'' Yet surely it was so, even if we can also use the language of political assassination. That language is helpful, perhaps, but loses sight of the evil done there. The "reverend?" Pat Robinson calls currently for the assassination of an elected president. This is simply evil..

There is a recognised type in churches that some people have labelled ''clergy killers." See here for a good introduction.

We are loath to speak of unclean spirits, but again, it is a true description. I quote. "Clergy killers are masters of disguise. They can present themselves as pious, active church members who are "only doing this for the good of the church."" And a little further along; "Clergy killers are evil.... There are clinical names, of course, but in our theological categories, they are evil. This means they are not just sinners, in the normal inadvertent or mistaken sense. They do evil intentionally, and willingly pursue its destructive means and ends."

Authority provokes a response. If we live the gospel, and if it is true that Jesus is ''the pioneer of our faith" (Hebrews)... we can expect the gospel to provoke a response from evil. This is to be expected. Everything we have seen in these first verses in Mark points to a message setting itself against Jerusalem against "the powers that be," and against the System. I do not advocate we abandon the insights of political theory or of psychology, and see a demon behind every tree. That is to avoid the power and richness of today's insights. But we are fools if we ignore the richness of our own faith, and do not call evil by its own name. Perhaps the greatest power we have in the face of evil is to name it for what it is.

It is worth noting that the first place Jesus meets the unclean spirits is in the synagogue. This is no anti-semitism- it is saying the first place he met unclean spirits is in church! Why be surprised. People seek healing. We are all wounded and touched by ''uncleanliness:' Only a matter of degree separates us from each other, and the most wounded.

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.




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