How weird is this: Jesus goes to a religious centre, encounters a man with an unclean spirit, and exorcises him. And all the people say, “Wow! What a teacher!” Throughout the Gospel of Mark, as Jesus sends away many unclean and demonic spirits, the people keep calling him ‘Teacher’. And his tour culminates in the cleansing of the temple: and “the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching!”—except, of course, those who sought to kill him. I’m guessing by now the teachers here are mentally raising their eyebrows. Perform an exorcism at Warrnambool College, and you’ll have all the people running away screaming; they won’t be praising the teacher. So what’s going on here?
First, we need to be aware of a pattern in the Gospel of Mark, which is sometimes called a ‘Markan sandwich’. The writer places similar events, like slices of bread, around another event or episode: and this tells you that they’re related. To understand this story, we need to look at a pile of sandwiches.
In the first sandwich, Jesus encounters a man with an unclean spirit. Just before that, in a bit we didn’t hear, Jesus was baptised and filled with the Holy Spirit. So you have a story of Holy Spirit, or good spirit, and unclean spirit, or bad spirit, sandwiched around the calling of the first disciples. If you notice this, you might think: hmmm … following Jesus seems to mean being squished between good and bad spirit. And this is exactly right: for the Gospel of Mark is a story of the power struggle between the Holy Spirit and all those things which possess people: money, status, purity, violence, fear, and other things. Again and again in the Gospel, Jesus’ Holy Spirit drives out unclean or demonic spirits, and heals people.
The second sandwich is that the people were amazed at his teaching with authority: this idea comes up twice, once before and once after he drives out the unclean spirit. And so again, you might notice this, and you might think: hmmm, Jesus’ teaching has authority because it drives out unclean spirits. And if you know anything about unclean or demonic spirits, you realise that his work changes lives, bringing restoration, healing, and freedom. For in those days a person with an unclean spirit was not allowed to participate in the ordinary things of life; they were considered contagious, and to be avoided. But Jesus shows a different way. He doesn’t avoid the person with the unclean spirit. Instead, he engages with the spirit and sends it away, which heals the afflicted person and allows them to be reintegrated into normal life; and it must be this which gives his teaching authority.
However, it also leads to conflict, and this conflict is the meat of the third sandwich. For tonight’s story happens in a sacred space and time: in a synagogue, on the Sabbath; and it occurs near the beginning of the Gospel of Mark. Near the end of the Gospel of Mark, we find Jesus again in a sacred space, as he cleanses the temple. The first cleansing ignites his opposition; the second leads directly to his death. So that’s the big sandwich of Mark: Jesus goes to religious places, and purges them of unclean spirits or demonic powers: and the authorities react with violence. In between he travels all over the place, from Jewish town to Gentile town and back again; and as he does so he heals, touches, reaches out to, and eats with all the wrong people: sinners, traitors, sex workers, foreigners, people with disabilities, people with mental illnesses, poor people. Ordinary people, who are kept on society’s margins. So you might notice this great big sandwich, and you might wonder: What is it about sacred spaces and people on the margins? Why is Jesus driving unclean and demonic spirits out of religious institutions, and eating with people we mostly avoid?
Well, throughout history religious institutions—temples, synagogues, mosques, and churches—have decided who’s in and who’s out. They have gathered power and wealth to themselves by exerting social control; they have fostered social division; and they have given birth to great violence, based on rigid and tightly-boundaried ideas of holiness. We see this all through history, and all over the world; and this social control has been profoundly damaging, if not deadly, for many, many people.
Here in Australia, colonial Christianity justified the persecution, scattering, and enslavement of those adhering to indigenous spiritualities; while white religious wars focussed on discrimination in employment and trade, and rock-throwing and other scuffles between Catholics and Protestants. And for all of us, the social marginalisation has been acute. Within the churches, people who ask difficult questions or wrestle with doubt are often sidelined and asked to leave. People with disabilities or mental illnesses, particularly those who are perceived to disrupt the service, are also often shown the door. So, too, the poor, who cannot scrub up nice and meet the purity requirements or Sunday dress codes. People forced into sex work are definitely out. The behaviour of children makes make many adults uncomfortable, so children are out, too, or at least kept away from the main worship service. People with diverse gender and sexual identities tend to be out if they’re out, so to speak; and, in many places, women, indigenous people, and LGBTQ+ people who are called to pastoral leadership do not have their call affirmed. Even outside the church, most religious and social power continues to be held by white middle class men who preach a violent, patriarchal, heteronormative, pseudo-Christian ideal, and who push anyone who doesn’t conform to their norms to marginal social status. Quite frankly, the quicker Christendom collapses, with its interlinking of religion and power, the better.
So when Jesus cleanses the synagogue, the temple, and effectively the church, he is throwing out these corrupt and destructive powers: the demonic forces which use religion to justify violence and social control. This is the heart of his ministry, and this is why his teaching has authority. For unlike the religious leaders, whose preaching shores up their own power and influence by excluding others, Jesus says, “Love your neighbour”, and then does it. He talks with anyone; he eats with everyone, whatever their social position or lifestyle. There are no exclusions here. Through his actions, Jesus shows that love means crossing all holiness and purity codes, and all human boundaries, which today might be understood in terms of class and culture; gender and sexual identity; denominational affiliation; theological interpretation; mental health; and age. No wonder his work enraged the authorities, and drew the crowds in!
But this raises a question. If religious institutions can be so destructive, should we then shut down all churches, mosques, and synagogues? Certainly, many of us have found churches to be violent, controlling, and spirit-deadening places, which is exactly why so many of us left the church, at least for a time.
I think the answer lies in what sort of life we want to lead, and what sort of church we want to form. We can leave church and live on neutral ground. We can have decent ethics and good morals; we can be nice neighbours and thoughtful parents and so on. The demonic forces will leave us alone there, because, without regular reorientation towards Christ, most of us will never go beyond dominant values, where personal happiness takes priority over the common good; family takes priority over faith community; our children are more important than the world’s children; national identity is defined by those we exclude; and outwards markers of class and culture define us.
Or we can accept the call to discipleship, knowing that this call is sandwiched between good spirit and bad spirit. In other words, we can give up being religious, and instead try to follow Jesus and love across human boundaries; try to forgive our neighbours and know and love our enemies; and try to love even ourselves—but a spiritual battle will ensue. When we proclaim in word and deed a different way, a way of hope and wholeness and freedom which challenges the dominant powers and invites all people to the table—indigenous, white, gay, straight, young, old, mentally unstable, mentally acute, abled, differently abled, male, female, liberal, conservative, and everyone in between all these polarising categories—then our teaching will have authority, and the demonic voices, both religious and otherwise, will fight back.
They will come from without, and they will come from within; for we, too, carry our society’s values within us. So even as we rejoice at the wholeness and freedom that Jesus promises, we will be tempted time and again to reject the good news, to silence those who preach freedom, and to expel those whom we deem unacceptable and unrighteous in our eyes. Like the man with the unclean spirit, we may find ourselves swamped by frustration, fear, and rage in the presence of the one who sees us as we truly are, and who loves us anyway.
So following Jesus will mean a fight: but it’s a great fight to have, because Jesus is with us. And he is not afraid of the unclean spirits or the demonic powers, nor does he avoid our own violent, destructive, or judgemental tendencies. Instead, he comes towards us, engaging, healing, and setting us free from our angry, anxious, intolerant little selves; then he sends us out into the world to do likewise: to go towards all peoples and draw them into a hospitable community which knows no bounds, and which, by its very existence, demonstrates wholeness, freedom, and integrity through its love for all people regardless of their identity.
That, my friends, is the authoritative teaching of Jesus; and, as his disciples, that is our calling, too. With the help of his Holy Spirit, we will have power over the unclean spirits of violence, hatred, exclusion, and intolerance; and we will share in his glorious life of liberation and abundant love for all, whatever their identity or lifestyle. And that includes even us! Amen. Ω
A reflection on Mark 1:21-28 by Alison Sampson for Sanctuary, 28 January 2018 (B14). Image shows Jesus and Devil by Bhanu Dudhat. Find it here.