Saturday, January 28, 2012

Reflections on the Gospel - Mark 1:21-28 - "Jesus: The Exorcist"

Read the Gospel text here: Mark 1:21-28
Jesus: The Exorcist
From the very beginning of the Gospel things move quickly.  Just look at the first page of the Gospel of Mark and see how close all the headings are to one another (pew bible NT p. 27).  Beginning with the introduction we move quickly through John the Baptist, the Baptism of Jesus, the Temptations in the Wilderness, the Beginning of Jesus’ ministry, the calling of the Disciples, and finally now we have come to Jesus’ first recorded healing – the Healing of the Man with the Unclean Spirit.  The pace has been almost breathless – but as we read through this first chapter we do need to pause briefly at verses 14 & 15: … Jesus came to the Galilee proclaiming the Good News of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God has come near, repent and believe in the Good News.”  This is what drives the subsequent episodes: the Good News, the Gospel of the Kingdom of God that has come into our midst.  Everything that follows emerges from this verse.  And so we come to Jesus’ first healing in verses 21-28 and it is the healing of the man with the unclean spirit.  Why is an exorcism the first healing miracle in Mark? And why is this such an important sign of the proclamation of the Good News of God?
For us 21st century, post-enlightenment folks we as a society are both fascinated and skeptical about exorcisms.  Think of the various movies and stories that center around this subject.  Perhaps the best known are the old movies entitled “The Exorcist” with Linda Blair, and the Michael Keaton movie, (also relatively old), called “Beetlejuice.”  What we find in these films and the many others like them is a focus on the supernatural and a depiction of overwhelming evil run amok.  These films are full of effects – everything from spinning heads to floating furniture.  I suppose this makes for good movies, but if we are going to look at these accounts of Jesus casting out unclean spirits in Mark then we need to set these images aside and see them as fantasies that bear no relation whatsoever to the Gospel texts.
Remember in Mark 1:10 the Spirit of God descends upon Jesus in the form of a dove.  In this passage the man, who is in the synagogue has an unclean spirit. I believe the comparison to be intentional.  The Spirit of God is manifested perfectly in Jesus’ life, ministry, crucifixion and resurrection.  The Spirit of God is manifested in unconditional love and grace, forgiveness and healing.  The unclean spirits that have inhabited this man would be spirits that manifest in ways that are directly opposite to this.  So instead of grace and love and forgiveness unclean spirits might include the spirits of anger, envy, jealousy or perhaps spirits of various addictions, prejudice, racism, or arrogance; or even perhaps the spirits of more socially acceptable spirits like workaholism or greed.  Does this bring this passage a bit closer to home?  It does for me.  These unclean spirits are the spirits that divide us from God and from each other; they are the spirits that encourage judgmentalism and revenge and self-justification and even violence.  We all struggle mightily with these unclean spirits.  What are some of the unclean spirits that you struggle with, and which you might ask Jesus’ to exorcise from your life?
Jesus begins with this exorcism in the synagogue because Mark wants to make it clear that the Spirit of God is more powerful than the unclean spirits of this world and that the proclamation of the Good News of God is more than just words.  It is the taking on and overpowering of the unclean spirits of this world: Love will over come hate, light will overcome darkness, life with overcome death, grace and forgiveness will overcome the powers which deny and work against these. 
           One last point – notice that Jesus commands silence from the unclean spirits.  This is a pattern that will occur again and again throughout the first part of the Gospel of Mark.  Scholars call this the “Messianic Secret.”  What is that about?  Why does Jesus constantly command silence about himself and his work in Mark?  There is a simple answer: until the crucifixion and resurrection Jesus’ work and identity as Messiah is incomplete.  In other words, Jesus is revealed to be the Messiah and Son of God not through his miracles and teachings, but on the cross!  The cross looms large and until we can see the shadow of the cross then we cannot understand who Jesus truly is and what his ministry is all about.  Of course it is also important to note that Jesus is not successful keeping people quiet about him; they ignore his orders to keep silent and we as the readers of the Gospel are in on the secret anyway.  We know that Jesus is the Messiah and Son of God and that it is ultimately only the power of the cross that can cast out the unclean spirits with which we struggle.

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