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The Rev. Irina Dubinski

The Capernaum Man with an Unclean Spirit

Last week, we engaged with a reading from the Gospel of Mark about how Jesus’ very first followers "left their nets”; that is, left all that they loved and depended on (or maybe, secretly pined for an opportunity to leave behind!). Quite early on, their tour of the Galilean countryside brought them to Capernaum on the northern shore. There, on Sabbath morning, a trumpet call had summoned them to the local synagogue. A very typical event in every single 1st century Jewish settlement that boasted at least 10 men, and therefore had to dedicate time and space for the public reading and interpretation of the scriptures. Men of all ages and social classes would gather to hear a set of prayers, no fewer than 7 readings, and some commentary followed by a discussion. Such communal reading and interpreting the scriptures was considered the opportunity to hear God’s word in the 400-year-long absence of any recognized prophets in Israel. While each synagogue employed a Ruler to serve as its manager and liturgical officiant, teaching and preaching was, in fact, a shared role.

And so, these Saturday morning gatherings supplied a very natural setting for Rabbi Jesus’ regular contribution of his own didache - the ‘statement of belief consisting of formulated teaching’. But, here’s the rub. Whenever the Hebrew teachers offered their commentary on the Scriptures, they tended to defer to the founders of their most prominent schools of interpretation (i.e., “Hillel or Shamai says”). In contrast to this, Jesus tended to say, “I say unto you”. For the first time in 400 years, Israel has heard Jesus and John the Baptist speak God's renewed message directly, with freedom and authority (interestingly, in Greek these are almost one and the same, exousia).

Such audacious approach to scriptural interpretation has naturally amazed Jesus’ contemporaries. I wonder if it was, in fact, the tone of his voice that first drew their attention, rather than his public speaking skills, or his jokes and analogies, which were sometimes readily accessible, but often mysterious. The writer of the Gospel of Mark is highly concerned with the theme of Jesus’ authority. Throughout the book, he has Jesus utter dangerous statements (e.g., “I have the authority on earth to forgive sins"), which of course, eventually landed him in Pontius Pilate’s court. In addition, Mark supplies numerous illustrations of Jesus’ control over all spheres of life: from the human will (e.g., the first disciples), to nature (e.g., the storm and the waves), and the supernatural world (e.g., Satan and angels in the desert, plus the 6 exorcism stories).

Interestingly, by Mark 3, Jesus begins to see trouble working his miracles on Sabbath days; but in today’s story - Mark’s first exorcism account - no one is yet challenging him. Actually, the story happens to be parallel to that of Jesus quelling the storm. In both accounts, Jesus first rebukes the demon and storm, then commands them to be still, and finally the witnesses respond with "what is this, he commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey" or "who is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?" From the 1st century author’s perspective, most instances of extreme weather, disease, tragedy, natural disaster, or personal trouble arose equally from the activity of the evil spirits. So while we may wonder, today, whether or not the man in the story was really possessed by a supernatural being or had a mental illness, to the author of Mark it was likely one and the same. Some 1st century cemetery excavations have uncovered up to 5% of the skulls having holes drilled into them; apparently, in the last resort attempts to release the demons presumed to reside within.

But let us not become condescending. We are, indeed, so much better educated about nature and medicine, we laugh at horror movies, and clearly know fantasy from reality. Why are we then still so fearful of mental illness? Why do we still isolate and exclude people who struggle with it? Even as we note Mark’s turn of the phrase, “Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit”, implying that the man was not a regular member in this community, let us make sure we examine just how open is our own community to those whom we see as “others”.

I suspect we are all somewhat ignorant of the potential ways that evil asserts its power over our world. How many times have we said, “I’m sorry, I don’t know what came over me”? How often do we blame our rude or selfish actions on something seemingly outside of our control, from our habits, sins, fears, to tiredness, or stress, or even the fate and devil? Whether or not we believe in actual demons, we can all pray for a greater awareness of the times when we are being pulled away from God, for an increased understanding of the nature of these pulls and the ways they affect others around us. And we can also pray for an increased discernment of God’s healing activity in our lives.

Jesus’ perfect communion with God enabled him to speak to the Capernaum congregation and the ill man with the words that exuded both freedom and wisdom. He did not try to prevent scary situations and keep unclean people out, he dealt with the problem as they arose, calmly and simply, and without making a big display of power. He did not boast of his previous miracles in order to gain further influence. Those are just a few wise attitudes that we may emulate whenever we try to use our own gifts and do what is in our power to help others – using God’s approach to calming the storms of this world.

Jesus casting out demons in the form of the drowned wild pigs - another instance of conceptualizing spiritual forces as natural beings, or maybe the other way around.