Psalm 111 and Mark 1:21-28
An evil spirit. A demon. An unclean spirit.
Maybe the idea of this is uncomfortable for you. I know it is for me.
Before I go on let me say, however we understand it, whatever it is, demons, the demonic, evil spirits: the point of this passage is that Jesus has the authority. Jesus has more power than whatever harms. That’s the most important part and if your internet should cut out or whatever I don’t want you to miss that part. There is no reason to cower before a demon if you have Jesus within you- Jesus wins every time.
But. Demons. We have tried to box in this idea that those ignorant people had a long time ago, as, it was really just mental illness, or it was really just epilepsy. They didn’t understand those things so they called it a demon.
Others will say that there are real forces of evil in our world, yes, and now we call them racism, sexism, homophobia, white supremacy, authoritarianism. Forces that are bigger than any one person, and that impact us in our real lives.
But neither one of those ways of thinking explains how the unclean spirit/demon cried out Jesus’ name, named him the holy one of God. Or how Jesus was able to remove that unclean spirit from that individual.
Or maybe you readily believe in demons, maybe that belief helps you to understand all the bad things that happen. There is an extreme to this: I have known people whose reality is inhabited by evil spirits, every unfortunate event is the cause of a demon, “the devil made me do it” or him do it, or her, the kind of attitude that removes all human responsibility.
Me personally, I’ve moved through different understandings and come to think that spiritual powers are real but also way more complicated and intermeshed with our human experience than most want to give credit for. There are most certainly ways that harmful attitudes, words and actions multiply upon each other and produce things that are truly unholy- just remember what happened on January 6. A repeated lie, which lying is not of God one of our scriptures psalm 111 names it, truth and justice are God’s handiwork; a repeated call to act on the lie, people repeating the lie to each other, believing it, believing their duty to act to defend the lie even with violence- and you have an insurrection and 5 people dead and 2 capitol police officers have sense died by suicide. But in the weeks, months, and years leading up to that you could almost see the growth of Evil spirits of delusion, white supremacy, authoritarianism, growing exponentially into something that took over people who others knew as their neighbor, their relative, not a terrorist. What I’m trying to say here is not to make excuses but trying to go beyond a simplistic understanding. So yes, I believe there is a spiritual realm, yes it has an influence and yes it matters that we speak clearly God’s word and not get it twisted.
But what about this person who was in the synagogue, who had a spirit that cried out at Jesus, I used to struggle with really taking Scripture like this to heart.
But then I had a ministry experience that changed my mind. Content warning I am going to speak of a subject often hard to hear, abuse of children.
I had an experience that I struggled to make sense of. In the course of doing pastoral care for a woman who lost her mother, I came to know her younger sister. Then I got a phone message, delayed by cell carrier error or something. The little sister had suffered an “attack” and when I talked to the person from my congregation, now the next day after when she had tried to reach me, she described a scene similar to what I had heard of only in the movies- her younger sister had been speaking in a wholly other, gravelly voice, swiveling her head around, her body in constant movement and agitation. The reason they had been trying to reach me was to come perform an exorcism. Though it is not becoming, I’ll admit that I was relieved to have missed that phone call, I had no idea how to expel an evil spirit.
But a couple of days later the younger sister asked for a “confession” with me and told me what happened to her when she was a little girl. Her uncle sexually abused her at a very young age. She innocently told her mother about it and was reprimanded for saying such things about her uncle. “We don’t talk that way about family”. So she learned she was supposed to keep that abuse hidden. Then when her own mother passed, this episode that happened to her came close behind.
If you try to pick this apart, this woman suffered severe trauma first to the body and then to the soul, to be told her suffering mattered less than a man’s reputation. There is sexism and hierarchy of relationships at play there. She was made to feel the blame, not him.
That is the placement of shame on the innocent And I think shame is one of demons’ favorite plays.
Think about a person who is on the extremes of people you try to avoid. I might imagine someone with Erratic movement, speech that doesn’t make sense or is way too direct, behavior that’s out of bounds of what is normal or acceptable. These are sometime symptoms of some mental illnesses, but they make most of us uncomfortable. Think about how when we encounter such a person our instinct is to move away, avoid their gaze, avoid interaction that we know is going to be uncomfortable or even painful. It’s like we think the shame is contagious. We tend avoid people and situations like that.
Jesus does none of those things.
Jesus does not let the normal shame attached to the demon possessed person to dissuade him. He sees the person, the God-created being, and sees their infection. Like all the other ways he would heal, he would not let the pain before him keep him from doing God’s work. The shame, the stigma, the blame belongs with the demon, not the person. Jesus changes that dynamic. Speaks to the demon as what it is, so the person can be free.
In that encounter I described earlier, we know it was never the little girl’s fault. Being made to carry that shame that should never have been hers is what made that trauma fester into something unholy that finally found its way out. This is how I make sense of what happened to her and after talking with her I think it is close to how she understood it, also.
If misplaced guilt and undeserved shame are main tools for demons and demonic forces, as I think they are: it has has huge implications for us and how we participate with Jesus, and the way he does things, or not.
Have you been made to bear shame that does not belong to you? have you been told you are less because of who you are? Or told you are unworthy because of something someone else did? It may not look quite like a demon possession from the movies, but that shame can infect us even so. Jesus would have it cast out of you. so you can be fully you, no shame.
But what we often do instead beloved, I mean humans in general but yes even me, what we often do is take the shame someone wants to put on us, and try to pass it onto someone else, just move the unclean spirit around instead of casting it out.
When we put shame and stigma on the mentally ill, look away, avoid, blame them, we are cooperating with evil spirits. When we put shame and stigma on any kind of victim of someone else’s violence, we are cooperating with unclean spirits. When we hold the value of people’s lives differently because of the color of their skin, which is what racism is, we are participating in a transfer of shame and helping out the demonic forces. When we tell a young person who finds themselves to be gay or living in a body that doesn’t fit their gender, and say, they ought to be ashamed of themselves- we are participating with unclean spirts. Then all of that multiplies into the isms, which start to rule how we treat others. It’s all connected.
Jesus does not cooperate with the evil spirits, not even for a second, even in the synagogue which I imagine to be a little like church where people mostly sit quietly and aim for decorum, Jesus doesn’t ignore the demon so they can have some nice religious calm time- he calls it out. Tells it to be quiet. Throws it out by his authority.
Authoritarianism is one of those -ism, evil spirit kind of things I named but we need to be careful in recognizing appropriate authority and inappropriate authority. Jesus always operated by seeing the person first, helping, loving, healing. He was a servant leader and that was his authority. He never tried to manipulate, cajole or swindle anyone. Authoritarianism worships the power and cares nothing about the people who are made to suffer.
Jesus was from God. The demon knew it right away. Jesus’ clear understanding of where shame really belongs is what I think helped the people see his authority. If you read the gospels that replacement of shame where it belongs, removal from where it does not, goes through the whole story. Jesus does not shy from touching lepers, eating with sinners, healing on the Sabbath, interacting with women. He actually seeks out those kinds of situations to turn people’s ideas around. About all of the things shame taught people not to do. Jesus does not operate in that way which is truly unclean but shows that God’s true way will not be hindered by how humans have tried to unload shame on each other.
Thanks be to God for Jesus who had that trueness in him that no demon could corrupt.
Whether you understand all of this, as more of a concept or as an embodied force or something else, remember that Jesus had and still has that true authority: over heaven and hell, over every kind of spirit and force, and yes even over death and the grave. There is no shame that he cannot remove. I may not have training in exorcisms but I do not fear any because I know Jesus has that power, and I just call on his name. Our Savior has the authority that loves no matter what kind of affliction we suffer. He has given us the Holy Spirit. May we call on him and be freed from all stigma and shame, freed to live out his way of truth and love, Amen.