Jesus and his new-found followers come ashore from the Sea to city of Capernaum. The way the call of the first four disciples is arranged just prior to this narrative, it may suggest that the boat that Zebedee and his hired hands were anchored in was located on the edge of Capernaum. With Simon and Andrew living and working out of Capernaum in what may be a fishing partnership with James, John and Zebedee’s family, it is possible that Zebedee also had a home near Capernaum.
Jesus assumes the role of the teacher in the synagogue in Capernaum, and he teaches with authority: vv. 21-22; 27-28. In the middle section of this story, Jesus is confronted by a man with an unclean spirit – and the spirit reveals Jesus identity (vv. 23-26). Jesus rebukes the spirit and it comes out.
A demon, one of the cosmic powers opposed to God, is an “unclean spirit.” During the time of Persian influence (during the Babylonian exile), Judaism developed a demonology that said that insanity was the result of an unclean spirit. The only use of “unclean” in the gospels refers to demon possession: The first occurrence in the Gospel of Mark is our current story in the synagogue in Capernaum: 1:23-27. The second time demons are mentioned is a general account of the whole city of Capernaum coming to Simon and Andrew’s door at the end of Sabbath and many people with demons were freed: 3:11. In 3:30, Jesus is accused of having an unclean spirit.
The longest story involving a man with many demons is the Geresene demoniac in 5:2, 8, & 13. Jesus asks the demons for their collective name which is Legion. Jesus honors the demons request and sends them into a nearby herd of pigs. Jesus has taught his disciples and prepared them to do the work he has been doing and sends them to preach and cast out demons: 6:7. Jesus also meets a gentile woman whose daughter has a demon and she begs Jesus to set her daughter free: 7:25. Finally, in 9:25, after Jesus is transfigured on a mountain in the presence of Peter, James and John, they come down the mountain and find his other disciples having problems setting a boy with an unclean spirit free. In this story, Jesus speaks to the spirit and its bondage on the boy’s hearing and ability to speak and he calls it out, commanding it to never return.
For most of us, these stories of Jesus and the casting out of demons can feel like an encounter with a distant and unfamiliar ancient world view. In fact, this is the view of many Americans and Westerners not only about Satan and demons but also in regards to God. How do we make sense of these stories? On the one hand I can tell you that my global experiences show that the belief in Satan or evil or demons is much more real, especially in Third World countries.
It must be said that in our own U.S. history, demons and demonizing people different than ourselves has been very detrimental and a sad chapter in our history. Many people have been put to death, died, incorrectly institutionalized or suffered simply because they were tagged as having a demon. People with intellectual disabilities or emotional disorders have been some of the people who have suffered the most. Difference does not mean “evil.” What is evil is the judgmental spirit that has taken life and punished others unjustly.
Evil exists. Evil marinates in peoples’ minds and is expressed in angry outbursts of bigotry, xenophobia and words spoken, texted, emailed with the intent of extracting hurt, spite and revenge. Beyond words are evil actions intent on destruction, suffering and death. Evil can consume or possess an individual or group.
A theologian who I find helpful on the topic of evil is Walter Wink. He writes: What I propose is viewing the spiritual Powers not as separate heavenly or ethereal entities but as the inner aspect of material or tangible manifestations of power…the “principalities and powers” are the inner or spiritual essence, or gestalt, of an institution or state or system; that the “demons” are the psychic or spiritual power emanated by organizations or individuals or subaspects of individuals whose energies are bent on overpowering others…Let me illustrate. A “mob spirit” does not hover in the sky waiting to leap down on unruly crowds at a soccer match. It is the actual spirit constellated when the crowd reaches a certain critical flashpoint of excitement and frustration. It comes into existence in that moment, causes people to act in ways they would never have dreamed themselves capable, and then cease to exist the moment the crowd disperses, (Naming the Powers: The Powers Volume 1, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984, p. 105).
What is helpful in Wink’s thinking is how evil take residence in a person or group and for that moment in time greatly bends the behavior toward violence and harm or least little regard for the safety and well-being of others. This describes well the way in which hate groups lather themselves up with rhetoric and self-righteous anger to a boiling point and then bring harm.
While under the influence of drugs or alcohol can cause rowdy and rebellious behavior, this is not the same as cooperating with an evil or unclean spirit. An evil spirit has to be invited into your life in the same way that we must give access to God’s Holy Spirit to guide and direct our day. Because we are responsible for giving evil access to our life, we cannot rid them out of our life by ourselves. This is why Jesus trained and then sent his disciples to liberate captives from evil spirits.
I have a very small experience in casting out a demon. A junior high student that had been involved in various church activities over the years had a sleep over at her house. The girls wanted to have some fun so they messed around in what they understood to be part of a séance ritual. When Mindy did her part of the séance, the girls saw some blue-green light come out of the wall and “enter” Mindy. They finally went to bed.
Her mom and dad quickly noticed the difference in their daughter that week. She was out of the box way more rebellious and belligerent. When she got angry, her dad said he saw the kitchen cupboard doors fly open as she stormed by. They asked me for help. I gathered our prayer team and prepared ourselves for whatever God had in store. There were a number of strange things that happened in that story but at one point she looked at me, laughed in my face, an in a strange voice said to me: “You do not know what you are doing.” That was mostly the truth!
Dejected, I called it off and we went home. I brought just one of the team back with me the next night after more prayer and study. In the end, Mindy took a deep breath, relaxed, and a whole new attitude returned to her. Mindy was exhausted and went to bed early that night. By the grace and power of the God of the Trinity, Mindy was freed.
Shifting back to Mark 1:21-28, tt is fascinating to note that as amazed as they were about the authority by which Jesus taught, there is no mention of what he taught. The “they” in the synagogue (v. 27) are not named as the crowd but yet have a voice and ask questions of themselves. In v. 28, it concludes by telling of the growth and expansion of Jesus influence.
Irene is an amazing and courageous woman of faith. She is a bright light in my life. Irene is an extremely positive leader who never shy’s away from doing whatever needs to be done as well. I could run down the list of “half-empty” neighbors and family but Irene was almost always not only “half-full” but often overflowing!
In some of my earliest memories in life, Irene and her husband Lauren had just returned from mission work in what was then called Tanganyika (Tanzania today). Irene served as a home economist and Lauren as an agricultural specialist. I recall the Sunday evening program in the sanctuary of my home congregation, St. John’s Lutheran Church, when Lauren and Irene told stories and showed black and white slides of their work. I never dreamt that I would one day visit the very country they loved and served.
One of Irene’s gifts is her ability to make Bible stories come alive, especially for children. She is a fantastic story teller who bring passion and energy to the telling. Vacation Bible School was always an event that involved all five senses. VBS fed my wild imagination. Irene sowed the Word into my soul through her engaging story-telling and her authentic and obvious love of the Lord.
- Think of a time when you have seen someone different who experienced the wrath of an individual or group. What was your role in the story? What did you learn from that experience?
- How do you understand evil and its presence in life and our world? What sense do you make of stories like the man in the synagogue in Capernaum?
- Bondage comes in all types of forms from prison, to addiction, to sexual exploitation, and possession. The gift is freedom and healing. What role in this ministry do you hope for us to be involved in if any?
- How do you understand the authority of teaching in the church? What do think it means that Jesus taught with authority?