The fact that the very first event in Jesus’ ministry is an exorcism should then come as no surprise to us. Mark presents Jesus at the synagogue of Capernaum first as a teacher, but then we see him portrayed an exorcist. With John the Baptist in prison Jesus is left being both the herald of the kingdom of God, and also its agent.
Epiphany four – February 1, 2009
Surviving a Culture of Fear
Mark 1: 21They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24and 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.” 25But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” 26And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27They 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.” 28At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.
Rabbi Johanan knew of 300 kinds of demons living near his home town. He said that it is dangerous to walk between two palm-trees. Demons are particularly hurtful at night. It is unsafe to salute a person in the dark, for he might be a demon; to sleep alone in a house, as Lilith may seize one; to walk alone in the night or in the morning before cockcrow; to take water from one whose hands have not been washed in the morning.Especially dangerous are the eves of Wednesday and of the Sabbath, for then “the dancing roof-demon” haunts the air with her train of eighteen myriads of messengers of destruction, “every one of whom has the power of doing harm”. On those nights one should not drink water except out of white vessels and after having recited Ps. xxix. 3-9 (the verses mentioning seven times “the voice of the Lord”) or other magic formulas. Another perilous season is midsummer noon from the 17th of Tammuz to the 9th of Ab. Then the demon Meriri reigns from ten in the forenoon to three in the afternoon. He has the head of a calf, with one revolving horn in the middle, and an eye on the breast, and his whole body is covered with scales and hair and eyes; and whosoever sees him, man or beast, falls down and expires. Demons assume the shape of men, but have no shadow. At times they are black goat-like beings; at other times, seven-headed dragons.”Like angels, they have wings and fly from one end of the world to the other, and know the future; and like men they eat, propagate, and die”
Now Johanan Zakkai was a very influential rabbi, some say, the true leader of Israel at the time, a tanna, and he lived in Galilee, most likely Capernaum. As with other renowned Rabbis before him his life was divided into periods of forty years each. In the first of these he was a merchant; in the second a student; and in the third he taught. His public activity as the recognized leader of the pharisaic scribes must have begun between the years 30 and 40 of the common era, the time of Jesus. His pupils were present at his death. They asked their dying master: “Light of Israel, pillar of the sanctuary, strong hammer, why dost thou weep?” The blessing which just before his death he pronounced upon his pupils consisted of the prayer: “May it be God’s will that the fear of heaven be as strong in you as the fear of flesh and blood” . His last words were: “Put the vessels out of the house, that they may not become unclean, and prepare a throne for Hezekiah, the King of Judah, who is coming” By this puzzling reference to Hezekiah, in the final moments of his life means that Johanan was wrestling with the matter of the coming of the Messiah.
The whole Jewish and pagan world at the beginning of the Christian era believed in magic formulas by which the evil powers of the demons could be subdued, and the Jewish exorcists found fertile soil everywhere for the cultivation of their their magic. This was the atmosphere in which Christianity arose with the claim of “healing all that were oppressed of the devil” (Acts x. 38), enforcing the recognition by the unclean spirits themselves of the Son of David as the vanquisher of the demons (Mark i. 27, iii. 11). The name of Jesus became the power by which the host of Satan was to be overcome, as Jesus himself had seen “Satan as lightning fall from heaven” (Mark ix. 38, xvi. 17; Matt. xii. 28; Luke x. 18). The Matthew 12 piece speaks of progressive possession where in a demon once dislocated returns to find its previous host empty but clean and he recruits seven more demons worse than itself to inhabit the space. You see, to their minds there was danger lest the exorcism practiced by Gentiles and Jews alike should engender the spirit of impurity underlying all magic, the dividing line between legitimate and illegitimate magic was a blur at best. It was, therefore, not hostility which prompted the Pharisees to accuse Jesus and his disciples of “casting out devils by the power of Beelzebub, the prince of devils”. The more devils cast out, the more appeared (Luke xi. 26). The cure offered to an age in constant dread of demons (Acts v. 16, viii. 7, xvi. 16, xix. 12-20) only aggravated the disease.
We find the idea of spirits animating all elements of life and inhabiting all parts of the world in the primitive beliefs of all tribes and races. When certain deities rose to be the objects of regular worship and became the rulers of the powers of life, demons, or spirits, were subordinated to them. But inasmuch as they were still feared and occasionally worshiped by the populace, they became the objects of popular superstition. In Patrick O’Brian’s Treason’s Harbor the heroic team of Aubrey and Maturin make an over land excursion from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea. The locals were afraid of traveling at night across the desert because of the fiends, geniis, ghouls, spirits and night demons that frequented that region.
Nomadic Hebrews had much in common with the Arabian Bedouins in their belief in spirits, Canaanite practice and belief were greatly influenced by ancient Chaldea, whose demonology is in the main pre-Semitic. In Babylonia the Jews came under the influence of both the Chaldean and the Persian belief in good and in evil spirits, and this dualistic system became a dominant factor of Jewish demonology. In Europe, Teutonic, Celtic, and Slavonic demonology in the form of superstition also permeated Jewish practice and belief and thus Christianity. Though the belief in demons was greatly encouraged and enlarged in Babylonia under the influence of Parsee notions, demonology never became an essential feature of Jewish theology. This notion that creation is dominated by two coeternal forces of good and evil isn’t rooted in ancient Jewish heritage. Strict monotheism doesn’t allow such a view.
One story from very early in scripture illustrates this. We encounter an evil spirit in the story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice the ancestress of Israel, Sarai, for his own personal security. One translation suggests this scene. After the praise of Sarai’s beauty by members of Pharaoh’s court, she is taken by force from Abraham; Abraham prays to God and the result is: “That night, the God Most High sent (Pharaoh) a chastising spirit to afflict him and all the members of his household, an evil spirit.” The ‘evil’ spirit in this ancient story is clearly understood as a demon who inflicts plagues and punishment, rendering Pharaoh impotent for the time Sarai is in his custody. Only by Abraham’s prayer is the plague removed from him. The technical term for “demon” does not occur, but a demon (“evil spirit”) has evidently taken possession of the Pharaoh and his household. It is explicitly said that this demon is sent by God in order to hinder the Pharaoh’s approach Sarai. God alone can – after Abraham’s prayer – remove him. For Sarah and Abraham this evil spirit is a spirit of deliverance. Does the idea that God could be the source of the demonic element disturb you? The notion, broadly accepted in cultures around the world is foreign to ancient Judaism.
In Jesus day Pharisaism insisted that the observance of the Law was the best prophylactic against demons. The Tefillin worn by the Hellenistic Jews was regarded as an amulet; fixing of the mezuzah at door, the reading of the Shema with the name of God in the first verse, while a direct observance of the Law, were also regarded by the Rabbis as a safeguard against all evil powers. The recital of the set prayers each morning and evening, the observance of the commandment of the Sukkah, protect against evil powers. In fact it was thought that, “the wicked are accompanied by the angels of Satan; the righteous by the angels of God . “For each commandment observed by man becomes an angel “to guard him against demons”. “Every observance of the Law is a protection” and those bent upon doing some sacred work need fear no evil powers. The priest’s blessing also is a protection against malign influences. And as in the Passover night, “the night of watching,” Satan was bound and prevented from doing harm to Israel. Thus Pharisaism, while increasing the yoke of ceremonial laws for the sake of love of God, showed a way to overcome the fear of demons. Belief in the power of the Law became the antidote against what may be termed “Satanophobia”.
The fact that the very first event in Jesus’ ministry is an exorcism should then come as no surprise to us. Mark presents Jesus at the synagogue of Capernaum first as a teacher, but then we see him portrayed an exorcist. With John the Baptist in prison Jesus is left being both the herald of the kingdom of God, and also its agent. To the dualistic mind of his generation, which embraced the notion there are two antagonistic forces of good and evil in creation, he is understood as the agent of God’s intention, invading Satan’s domain to seize control. It is probably important for us to remember that Jesus is himself is described as possessed—by God’s Spirit.
What would you imagine to be the strong hold of Satan, the place of this first confrontation with the powers of evil? Maybe a house of ill repute, a casino or a local bar? Not at all, it takes place in the synagogue, a place where only the ritually clean gather for worship. So, how did the evil spirit get in there? Were there no officials, equivalent to our Transportation Security police, checking baggage, shoe soles, and pockets for spiritual contraband? How was it that an unclean spirit was allowed into this place of supposed ritual purity? Can evil hide in religious purity? Evidently so. What do you think, was it there already when Jesus entered the Synagogue? Had it been part of the community so long that no one there even noticed. Had people become so accustomed to its presence that they took no notice? Was it there by invitation? What strikes me is that this unclean spirit stays quiet, doing its work by stealth until – until Jesus begins to teach.
This spirit knows who Jesus is. Matter of fact it reveals Jesus’ true identity to those who had ears to hear. Of course, all the supernatural beings in Mark’s story recognize Jesus and make confessions, though the people around him don’t seem to hear what they say. There is actually some irony in this as later in Mark’s Gospel when the leaders of the Pharisees accuse Jesus of harboring a demon, even the demons know that is not true. They know that Jesus is the “holy one of God,” the “Son of God,” or the “Son of the Most High God.”
While most of the healing stories provide examples of the power of faith, exorcisms serve a different function. Clearly they offer no example of faithfulness. The people who are possessed have no control of themselves; the demons or unclean spirits speak independently of their hosts. These stories are about deliverance, a deliverance greater than anyone can even request, for these people who are captive to the unclean spirit are unable to ask help for themselves. Jesus sees the person possessed as a precious child of his Father’s, desperate for deliverance. Does something happen when we stop seeing people as evil, those who seem to attack us, those who not only say unkind things about us and seek to ‘out us’, to reveal to others who they think we really, and especially people who do things hurtful and harmful, things we might consider not just mean but evil? Someone in the Synagogue in Capernaum was just such a person. This person harbored a demonic spirit.
The Apostle Paul in his statement in 1 Corinthians 8:1-13 challenges the whole notion of two coeternal and antagonistic forces of good on one hand and evil on the other. He writes: “There is only one God. Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “no idol in the world really exists,” and that “there is no God but one.” Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as in fact there are many gods and many lords— yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.”
The most noticeable difference between sentient beings and dead things, between the living and the dead, is in the breath. Whatever lives breathes; whatever is dead does not breathe. In most languages breath and spirit are designated by the same term. The life-giving breath can not be of earthly origin, for nothing is found from whence it may be taken It is derived from God. God blew the breath of life into Adam (Gen. ii. 7). “The Spirit of God hath made me, and the breath of the Almighty hath given me life” (Job xxxiii. 4; God “giveth breath unto the people upon it [the earth], and spirit to them that walk therein” (Isa. xlii. 5). “In whose hand is the soul of every living thing, and the breath of all mankind” (Job xii. 10). Through His spirit all living things are created; and when He withdraws it they perish (Ps. 104. 29, 30.) He is therefore the God of the spirits of all flesh (Num. xvi. 22, xxvii. 16). The breath of animals also is derived from Him. . Aquila, by strangling some camels and then asking Hadrian to set them on their legs again, proved to the emperor that the world is based on “spirit”. The heavenly’ bodies likewise are living beings, who have received their spirit from God (Job xxvi. 13; Ps. xxxiii. 6). God’s spirit hovered over the form of lifeless matter, thereby making the Creation possible; and it still causes the most tremendous changes (Gen. i. 2; Isa. xxxii. 15). Hence all creatures live only through the spirit given by God.
Jesus brought deliverance to people whose lives were ruled by fear. He still does. He speaks to the unclean spirits that we let dominate our lives and shows us that we have nothing to fear. It is as if Christ comes and lights the dark places where we fear demons to dwell and they are not there. And just as Jesus was possessed by God’s spirit. We are told in scripture that the Spirit of Christ dwells in us, in our hearts. Scott Bader-Saye recently published a book entitled Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear. He says that the church reflects the culture where it resides. It seems that that is no new thing. He points out, especially since nine-eleven, people of faith no longer feel safe practicing three most important Christian virtues: Hospitality, Peacemaking and Generosity. As Jesus and Paul challenged the primitive fears of their times, so the Spirit of Christ, dwelling in us calls us to a similar challenge, not, mind you, in our strength, power or wisdom, but trusting in the ‘holy one of God’, ‘The Son of the most High God’, Christ himself abiding in us, living and restoring creation through us.