It was on a “bit of fun” posting in a group of seminary classmates that I got my nugget of insight for this Gospel lesson today. The set-up was to think back about professors and throw up some comments that we remember from our professors.
It was great fun.
Remembering how a Preaching Professor, (Sheldon Tostengard) used to go to the window and make gagging and vomiting sounds when a student had a real stinker of a sermon before turning to analyze and involve everyone in helping student improving it.
The New Testament Professor who would throw confetti from the balcony when the worship planners at Seminary chapel planned a formal procession. “If you’re gonna have a parade, just as well go all out….”
But for this sermon it was the memory of a classmate talking about a visiting professor from Madagascar, and his response to an incredulous student that sparked my thoughts.
Christianity arrived in Madagascar as a result of the work of Norwegian pietist missionaries in the 1860’s. The conditions they found on the island were of extreme poverty, lack of health and mental health care, and a religion that was intensely tribal and animistic. There were “spirits” everywhere, and in everything.
This was fertile ground for the Gospel message of Jesus as it had been proclaimed in the early church, with missionaries paying close attention to the way that healing and the casting out of the demons that afflicted the indigenous people went hand in hand. You could not simply teach them better hygiene or administer first aid, you had to also “drive out” the afflicting spirit that was the cause of the malady.
As the professor talked about the important role in that faith community to this day of doing exorcism and spiritual cleansing, a student asked, “You don’t really believe in demons, do you?”
The professor turned from the blackboard and looked the student in the eye and responded: “The demons could care less if you doubt their existence…as if your doubt would determine their reality.” — and then turned to continue with his lecture.
I have pondered that comment over and over as I read this story of Jesus in the Synagogue for today.
We quite often get sidetracked in Mark’s gospel debating the reality of demons or “unclean spirits” as this translation calls them. We posit our own questions as to whether folks had some form of mental illness, or suffered from epilepsy, or bi-polar conditions. We look at the Gospel story and try to diagnose the presenting symptoms with modern eyes and terminology.
All attempts to do that only end up becoming a distraction to the central point of the story.
Jesus does not question the reality of the demonic.
Instead Jesus addresses it when it presents itself and deals with it, in short order. “Be silent, come out…”
Mark readily points out that the demon-possessed seem perfectly happy to be sitting there in the synagogue, engaging in worship, singing the psalms and hearing the scripture read. They don’t even really mind Jesus being around at first. They are content and quiet right up to the point where Jesus starts to “teach with authority.”
Then it is that the objection is raised.
“What have you to do with us, Jesus? Have you come here to destroy us? We know who you are, the Holy one of God!”
The demons could care less if you doubt their existence. In fact, it serves them quite well to go unnoticed and anonymous in your midst.
Your doubt of their existence does not determine their reality.
What reveals the demonic in your midst is the teaching of Jesus, which is a teaching with authority.
Whenever Jesus begins to speak of what one must do for the sake of the coming Kingdom of God, that is when the demonic tends to raise its objections.
It is when Jesus begins to lay out what God’s intention for this world is that the demon screams and back questions.
And the question? “What do you have to do with us, Jesus?” It is a question of continued existence! Whether what the demonic is used to doing can continue, or whether Jesus will destroy it.
Would you like to test that? Need a bit of proof?
Pick any subject upon which Jesus’ teaching is clear and authoritative, and then apply it to our own current situation, and see if you begin to hear the demons protest!
We know, (for instance) that Jesus was absolutely clear about the matter of violence. Do not return violence for violence. You have heard it said, and eye for and eye and the tooth for a tooth, but I say love your enemies and pray for your persecutors. Put away that sword, those who live by the sword shall die by the sword.
You can search the Gospels all you want, but you will not find a single passage where Jesus advocates violent resistance or condones the use of force in any way. The closest he gets is the cleansing of the temple where “zeal for God’s house” gets the better of him, but threat of violence, driving with a whip fashioned of cord, is not punching.
So then, the teaching is clear. No one who follows Jesus should resort to or advocate for violence. Apply the teachings of Jesus to something like gun ownership for personal protection and it simply doesn’t fit. “Put away that handgun, those who live by the handgun, die by the handgun.”
Can you hear the demons screaming?
Here come the objections, the need to protect ourselves, our constitutional rights, the way this world works, the “you’re naïve to think criminals won’t get guns” and on an on.
The teaching of Jesus is clear. No greater love than to lay down your own life….
Those who lose their lives for my sake will gain their life…
Anyone who would come after me must take up their cross… be prepared to die.
But the demon of personal preservation and protection is strong, and loud, and does not want to give up their claim on this world!
“What have you to do with me, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?”
Or let’s take the area of economics.
Consider the lilies of the field…
If you have two shirts, give one away.
Soldiers, do not take more than you are paid, do not extort the people.
Tax collectors, leave your positions and pay back what you have taken.
Blessed are the poor, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the peacemakers.
Woe to you who are rich! Woe to you who have your reward now!
Jesus teaching on economics is clear, in the Kingdom of God all are to have enough, and in the Kingdom of God the concentration of wealth into the hands of a few is leveled and re-distributed.
How we get there is the problem.
The example set by Jesus calls for voluntary redistribution, and the church of Acts took up that very project, selling their possessions, having all things in common so that no one lacked anything.
Can you hear the demons screaming?
“That’s not how things work, you need to earn your way!”
“Those people won’t appreciate things just given to them!”
“Hey, I’ve worked hard for what I got, you expect me to lower my standard of living?”
All of those are simply variations of “What do you have to do with me, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy everything I have built up for myself?”
Please don’t misunderstand me here. I’m not saying that if you don’t follow Jesus’ clear teaching you are a demon or somehow demon possessed.
What I am saying is that whenever Jesus speaks with authority, we’re going to begin to see where our own demons are, and we will have to struggle with them.
This is what that professor from Madagascar was pointing out.
The demons could care less if you doubt their existence. It’s not your belief or doubt that determines their reality.
What determines their reality is how you react to the coming Kingdom of God.
That is what threatens them.
The demon of poverty cannot exist where people share their bread.
The demon of wealth cannot exist where people see to the welfare of their neighbor.
The unclean spirit of pride and arrogance cannot take root where the spirit of humility and charity is present.
What threatens the demon that grips you is the clear teaching of Jesus which is its end, because it calls those who follow to behave in ways that will not allow the demon to exist or persist.
When you hear the demon scream, when you are aware of its existence, then it is that you need to hear the clear teaching of Jesus to silence it.
This is the promise in the Gospel lesson today. When you start to listen to the teaching of Jesus, you’re going to hear the demons scream their objections!
You’re going to hear them in your midst.
You’re likely going to hear their protests coming from your own lips and throat from time to time.
“What have you to do with me, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy?”
Destroy my old way of thinking.
Destroy my pride?
Destroy my greed?
Destroy my hatred of a certain class, race or type of people?
Have you come to destroy my self-centeredness?
Destroy my holding of grudges?
Destroy my insistence of having my own way?
Destroy my racism, my sexism, my long held and clung to assumptions about people and what is “normal” and how society should be ordered?
The demon could care less if you doubt their existence… as if your doubt could determine their reality.
No, the demon cares if it is exposed, and the demon departs when Jesus with clear teaching and loving eye calls it out and sends it on its way.
That is the good news this day, and in this lesson. It is also the warning to us. If you listen to Jesus, and move to follow him, expect some demons in your midst to scream.