(Not) Just the Way Things Are

Mark 1:21-39

(Not) Just the Way Things Are

February 4, 2018

 

          Jesus cast out demons.  Did you know that?  What are we to make of these demons, or unclean spirits, that Jesus cast out?  People suppose the gospel writers talked about “demons” because they didn’t know much science or medicine.  For example, from the description of his symptoms, people assume the boy in today’s reading may have had epilepsy, but that people in those days didn’t know about epilepsy, so they blamed it on demons.  But the truth is, the Greek language of New Testament times had a perfectly good medical term for epilepsy.  It was . . . epilepsy.1        

The Bible doesn't refer to an unclean spirit here because it doesn't know any better; it refers to an unclean spirit because there’s more going on than seizures.  There’s the way this poor boy was treated because of his seizures.  There’s the history of trauma that leaves some people unwell.  In this case, the demon appears, of all places, in the synagogue, and on, of all days, the Sabbath.  Jesus is not just healing the boy; he’s confronting the power of religion to control people through regulations and shaming. 

          The New Testament scholar who did the most work on demonic powers was Walter Wink.  A demon, Wink said, is the name given to that “real but invisible spirit of destructiveness and fragmentation that rends persons, communities, and nations.”2 

          Sometimes demons manifest themselves in individuals.  When I was a student chaplain, I visited a woman painfully dying from cirrhosis.  She kept referring to “that old devil,” how she fought it, how it hurt her.  I pressed her to name her devil, wanting her to be more specific, to talk openly about alcohol.  But she just kept talking about that old devil.  Looking back, I realize she was being specific:  there was a devil in her life, a spirit which took her over and impelled her to destruction. 

          Other times demons manifest themselves collectively.  In 1961 President Eisenhower--a retired general, you’ll remember--warned about a “military-industrial complex”--that informal alliance between our country’s military and the arms industry.  Each justifies its existence not by peace but by conflict.  Each in turn justifies and supports the other.  This demon, this military-industrial complex, Eisenhower worried, could lead to deficit spending and to engaging in wars that no individual finds prudent.  Hmm.

 

          Demons maintain their power because we get used to them, because the forces involved seem too big to do anything about.  We shrug our shoulders and say, “Well, that’s just the way things are.”  Casting out demons means saying, in the name of Jesus, “NO, that’s not just the way things are!” 

  • No, I don’t have to drink the rest of my life.
  • No, I don’t have to be a second-class citizen because I’m poor, or have dark skin, or don’t speak English.
  • No, we don’t have to allow men to harass and assault women.

No, Jesus said to the demons, that’s not “just the way things are.  And I won’t put up with it!”

          When confronting demons, Wink insists, we must always address not just the physical, but also the spiritual realities.  He relates how when the Roman authorities ordered the early Christians to worship the emperor, they didn’t just refuse; they knelt down and prayed to God for the emperor.  This seemingly innocuous act of prayer, Walter Wink says, was far more exasperating to the emperor than outright rebellion.  It rejected the ultimacy of the emperor’s power.  There is Someone, higher than Caesar, to pray to.3  And in the name of that one, Christians say, “No, this is not just the way things are.”

 

          So what does this look like here and now?  How are demons cast out today?  Here are a couple of examples:

  • I’ve just finished reading Dreamland, about the opiate crisis.  You probably know that AA, NA and all 12-step programs begin by admitting that we are powerless over our addiction and that a Power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity.  There is no un-spiritual recovery from addiction. 

     And at the end of Dreamland, after describing how awful the drug problem is, the author begins to share some hopeful signs for Ports-mouth, Ohio.  People used to come from all over the country to the pill mills in Portsmouth; now people come from all over to enter recovery there.  Some local businessmen banded together to buy a factory to keep jobs in Portsmouth, so people wouldn’t have to sell drugs to make a living.  Finally, after years of shame and secrecy, people are talking openly about their families’ struggles with addiction and they’re helping each other out.  He concludes: The only antidote to heroin is community.4  To stand up together in the name of Jesus and say, “NO!”  We are gradually learning how to cast out this demon of opiate dependence, to say “NO, this is not just the way things are.”

 

 

  • And then there’s this children’s book by Robert Coles, called The Story of Ruby Bridges. 

Read book

 

     Ruby helped to cast out the demon of prejudice and segregation.  In the name of Jesus she said, “NO, this is not just the way things are.”

     We can say it too.

1 See Lamar Williamson Jr., Mark, Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1983), 51.

2 See Walter Wink, Naming the Powers: The Language of Power in the New Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), 104-13.

3 Wink, 110-11.

4 Sam Quinones, Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2014), 353

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