Casting out Demons
Readings: Ephesians 6:10-17; Mark 1:21-34
In the story of Simon’s mother-in-law we see the gentleness and compassion of Jesus and the healing power of his presence. But mostly the healings are not quiet and gentle at all – they are acts of power, often of struggle. The most common kind of miracle is the casting out of evil spirits, or demons.
The first miracle mentioned in Mark is the healing of the man in the synagogue. We sometimes today have an experience like that – people in church services who are mentally unbalanced, disruptive, disturbing, aggressive or noisy. I often had it as a minister in London. It sometimes happens in other places too. Not only in church, but in all our communities, there are people whose mental state causes discomfort to others, people we often try to avoid.
We don’t use this language of spirit or demon possession today. It is used in parts of the church, but generally we don’t like it. In those days, all sickness was regarded as in some way supernatural, a kind of possession. Today we think in more scientific ways. We would not say that someone is possessed by a demon, we would rather say they were mentally ill.
What really happened in this story? Did Jesus calm the man down by speaking gently and lovingly to him? This is not what the story says. Its theme is power and authority. First, the people were amazed at the authority with which Jesus spoke. Then the demon in the man challenged Jesus: he recognised who he was and asked ‘Have you come to destroy us?’ Then Jesus spoke sternly: ‘Be silent, and come out of him!’ The healing wasn’t calm and sweet: it was dramatic, a power struggle.
We can argue forever about ‘what really happened’. But with a Bible story the most helpful question to ask is ‘why is it told?’ Mark is making a statement about the meaning of the ministry of Jesus: it is above all the casting out of demons, a confrontation with evil. The first miracle is the casting out of a demon. The people in the synagogue realise there is something important happening: Jesus ‘commands the unclean spirits, and they obey him’. On his first night in Capernaum, Jesus heals many sick people, but the emphasis is on casting out demons. Later, Jesus appoints twelve apostles ‘to be with him, and to be sent out to proclaim the message, and to have authority to cast out demons’. This seems to be the main purpose of his coming into the world.
But the story of the Gospel is that Jesus didn’t come just to heal individuals, His power over the demons was symbolic of God’s power over all evil powers. At the time, the Jewish nation, together with many others, was under what seemed the irresistible power of the Roman Empire. Mark starts his story by saying: ‘The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God’. ‘Christ’ means ‘the Anointed One’. The Roman Emperor was anointed and called ‘Son of God’. Calling Jesus by those titles was a defiance of the greatest power in the world at that time. Almost immediately we find Jesus being baptised and the voice from heaven confirming that he is the Son of God. He then goes on to preach that the kingdom of God is coming: again, a rival to Rome. The casting out of demons is a sign that the kingdom of God has come, that God’s power against all other powers is being revealed.
This is perhaps the main meaning of this casting out of demons for us today. We are more than ever aware of evil in the world: more terrorist attacks than ever, Nazi flags in American streets, the growth of racism and prejudice, lies, ‘fake news’, the malicious propaganda of some of the media about refugees, immigrants etc., vicious attitudes to people who disagree, the threat of nuclear war. Apart from the headlines, there are other things constantly going on that we hardly notice because we are used to them: poverty, destruction of the environment, wars and terrorism in places not so well known, prejudiced attitudes among ordinary people.
‘Demon possession’ is the least of our worries! What about the great evils that are in the world? We often feel helpless against them, but the gospel tells us that God is on our side in casting them out. They cannot persist in their power for ever, because God is stronger.
Thank God, we have seen signs in our own time of God’s power overcoming evil: the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe, the end of apartheid in South Africa, reconciliation and restoration in places like Rwanda, and the huge growth of fair trade and ecological concern.
I recently read a reassuring message in Facebook. Talking of recent terrorist attacks, it said,
‘As oil floats on water, so evil floats on an ocean of good … we need to constantly remind ourselves that most people are doing good things to most other people most of the time; evil is an anomaly.’ This is comforting to most of us, but it is not the whole truth: looking at the whole world, we have to say that most people most of the time are suffering unnecessarily because of the selfishness, greed and prejudice of others.
We are called to follow Jesus, to name the demons and challenge them. We do this by speaking up when we have the opportunity, challenging prejudice and selfish thinking, and by looking for opportunities to set the victims free.
It is easy, and very tempting, to attack individuals – the Prime Minister, the President of the USA etc. But we need to remember that Jesus attacked not people but the demons within people. We should be condemning not the people, but their views and their actions.
Above all, the Gospel shows us God’s way of overcoming evil – not by violence, but by courage, sacrifice and above all love. Mark’s Gospel, that so much emphasises the power and authority of Jesus against evil, ends up by showing him dying on the cross, and a Roman soldier – a representative of that great power that ruled the world – saying, ‘Truly this man was God’s Son!’