Jesus Casts Out Our Demons

Jesus Casts Out Our Demons

Homily for the Fourth Sunday in Epiphany

January 28, 2024

Jesus Casts Out Our Demons

Homily for Sunday, January 28, 2024
The Fourth Sunday After the Epiphany
Mark 1:21-28

One of the things I appreciate about Mark’s Gospel is that, unlike Matthew (from whom we heard last year in 2023,) [unlike Matthew] Mark bears no animus against fellow Jews.  Matthew’s Gospel is beautifully-written – his Sermon on the Mount, for example, is a masterpiece – but Matthew’s Gospel is also shot through with the disappointment, hurt and anger of Matthew’s Jesus-believing synagogue at the surrounding synagogues who did not believe in Jesus.  The “family feud” between Matthew’s and the surrounding synagogues became so great, reports Matthew, that in Matthew Jesus warns his disciples not to think “that I have come to bring peace… I have not come to bring peace but a sword,” and “to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother… and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household,” Matthew’s Jesus says  (10:34, 36). And even St. John’s Gospel, theologically rich though it may be, [even John’s Gospel] is in one sense a “smack down” of fellow Jews in which (according to John) Jesus in his very person begins to fulfill and even to replace much of the Jewish traditions and cult.  But Mark– from whose Gospel we will hear in 2024 – [Mark] is not burdened by a family feud; Mark has no “axe to grind” against fellow Jews.  Mark tells his story of Jesus from a very different vantage point.

The different vantage point from which Mark tells his story bears on this morning’s Gospel text.  In today’s lesson from Mark’s opening chapter, Jesus performs his first miracle, the casting out of a demon.  Before taking a closer look at Jesus’ first miracle in Mark, as a matter of contrast I’d like to take a closer look at Jesus’ first miracle in John.  In his first miracle in John, Jesus changed water into wine, a story in which (in a close read of the details and placing them alongside the Hebrew scriptures) [a story in which] John presents Jesus as the one who by his very person begins to fulfill and even to replace Jewish tradition and cult.  In John, Jesus’ first miracle takes place on the sixth day, connecting Jesus to the Genesis creation story and subtly suggesting that Jesus is as a New Adam (“the third day” (2:1) plus 1:29, 35, 43)).  In another echo of the Genesis creation story, Jesus calls his mother “woman” (2:4), thereby (some say) presenting her as a new Eve.  By placing Jesus’ first miracle at a wedding, John puts Jesus in the context of brides and bridegrooms, who in the prophetic literature symbolized for Israel God living together with God’s people (e.g., Is 62:5; Jer 2:2).  By the “six stone water jars… each holding twenty or thirty gallons” (of the water Jesus turned into wine), John presents Jesus as the giver of new and abundant life.  And the water and wine of the miracle echo the water and blood that in John flowed from the crucified Christ (19:34), whom John presents as the new Paschal Lamb in a radical re-understanding of the Day of Atonement.  In John’s telling of Jesus’ first miracle,John presents Jesus as the one who in his very being begins to fulfill and even to replace much of the Jewish tradition and cult.

In Mark, on the other hand, Jesus’ first miracle is the casting out of a demon. Whereas John tells no stories of Jesus casting out demons, already by the end of chapter 1 Mark has told three stories of Jesus casting out demons (1:22-28; 32-34; 39).  In Mark, Jesus is prolific in exorcism.  Casting out demons is important to Mark because – and here we come to the vantage point that influenced Mark’s telling of his story of Jesus – [casting out demons is important to Mark because] in 70AD, shortly before Mark is thought to have written his Gospel (and the event that many believe precipitated the writing of Mark’s Gospel), the Romans violently put down a Jewish rebellion and destroyed the Jerusalem Temple.  Does Mark feature the casting out of demons as prominently as he does because he understands the Romans to be “demons” in their occupation of the land and their destruction of the people’s place of worship?  At least one demon story in Mark, the healing of the Gerasene demoniac in chapter 5 (5:1-20), seems to directly refer to the Romans and to wish for their exorcism.  You may recall that in the story of the Gerasene demonic, the demon identified as “we are Legion” (5:9), which may have referred to the Roman legion occupying Judea at the time.  The emblem of that Roman legion (“Legio XFretensis”) was a boar.  Recall how in the story the unclean spirits begged Jesus to “send us into the swine; let us enter them” (5:12).  And recall how the herd of swine “stampeded down the steep bank into the sea and were drowned”(5:13), an outcome that the local Jewish population surely would have cheered.  Or recall, too, though in Mark Jesus urges his disciples not to tell people who he is (e.g.1:43-45; 8:30), the demons know and tell who Jesus is.  As in today’s text:  

[The man] cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?...  I know who you are, the Holy One of God”

In Mark the “demons” (which may or may not be the Romans) know who Jesus is.  So, too, In Mark does at least one Roman know and say who Jesus is.  At Mark’s crucifixion scene, in contrast to the taunts of the chief priests and scribes, the Roman centurion says:  “Truly this man was God’s son” (15:39).  

With his many stories of Jesus as a prolific exorcist, could it be that Mark understood Galilee under the Romans to be as though demon-possessed, and that Jesus, a native Son whom Mark believed to be the Messiah (Mk 8:29), could help to cast those “demons”out?  

Perhaps.  But what I find attractive about Mark’s Gospel as opposed to, say, Matthew’s, is that Mark’s Jesus is one who is less concerned with besting Jewish teachers in teaching (e.g., Matt 22:15-42) or catching them in hypocrisy (e.g., Matt 23) and more concerned with healing people and freeing them from an occupying force.  Which Jesus does, and – as today’s lesson noted – he does with “authority.”

We as a country may not be occupied by a foreign army, but we as people are yet “occupied” by “Legions”that are as deadly to our health and well-being as were the evil spirits in St. Mark’s gospel.  Money and greed are occupying “spirits;” so are jealousy and hatred.  Prejudice and ignorance of others are destructive “spirits;” so, too, are our habits of consumption and pollution of God’s creation.  Impatience and dishonesty are “spirits” that work ill, as are our failure to forgive and to love our neighbors as ourselves.  The list could go on...  

Just as Jesus in Mark’s Gospel had the power to drive out evil spirits, to heal and restore to fullness of life, so does Jesus today have power to heal, to drive out those evil“spirits” that diminish life.  The journey to that healing, suggests Mark, is not easy: in Mark the disciples are often said to have “no faith,” they frequently do not understand, and at the resurrection they run away in fear and terror.  Mark paints a challenging picture of discipleship.  But Mark more than any other Gospel presents Jesus as one who has power over evil “spirits,”and who can cast them out, heal and restore. I pray that God may give us the grace to believe and follow this Jesus,and to allow him to heal and restore us to the fullness of life that Mark is convinced God intends for us.

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