In Mass last Sunday we heard the first words spoken by Jesus according to the Gospel of Mark. He announced the formation of a new community – called the Kingdom of God – and then enlisted his first disciples to work with him in establishing it. Following on from this, St Mark today presents Jesus teaching in a synagogue and delivering a man from an ‘unclean spirit’. The most likely reason Mark opens his Gospel with this event is that he wants the reader to know that this was typical of what Jesus was doing in his early ministry.
In this synagogue we are told that the crowd found Our Lord’s manner of teaching to be very different and far more impressive than the scribes and other rabbis they were used to hearing. ‘Here is a teaching that is new and with authority behind it’, they said. This ‘authority’, the reader will discover later, that comes from God and not from a human source.
The man who screams at Jesus is described as being possessed with ‘an unclean spirit’. Exorcism was the conventional way then of dealing with such people. In our time we would classify them not as ‘possessed’ but suffering a mental illness. Such illness then was thought to be due to the influence of demons. People believed in spirits, good and bad, and while they felt they were more powerful than human beings, they believed they were less powerful than God. Nevertheless, they thought that spirits could intervene in human life, sometimes for good and sometimes with malice, and, in short, had power to control human behaviour.
This possessed man knows something the crowd doesn’t when he shouts that Jesus is the ‘Holy One of God’. But to their amazement Jesus is not frightened or controlled by the spirit. He confronts it and shows that he has a power that is stronger than ordinary human beings. This is why St Mark has the crowd saying: ‘Here is a teaching that is new and with authority behind it: he gives orders even to unclean spirits and they obey him.’
As a child I grew up in a community where some people believed in spirits and ghosts. A beloved aunt would tell me sometimes that fairies inhabited the woods around her house. As children we heard stories about members of the community who had ‘seen a ghost’, and that some dilapidated buildings were ‘haunted’. While I grew out of such superstitions, not everyone does – here in the UK I’d be quite wealthy if I had a £1 for every time people have approached me over the years believing that their homes were possessed by an evil spirit …
Nowadays science and medicine have a different understanding of what the Scriptures refer to as ‘demonic possession’. And, fortunately, the treatment for the mentally ill in our time is more understanding. But while the Gospel story may be difficult for us to accept and appreciate, we have to remember that Jesus was a man of his time and neither he nor his contemporaries had the understanding and access to science and medicine we have today.
So what has the healing story to say to us who have more power over our lives and circumstances than our Biblical ancestors? For me it is that Jesus spent a large part of his ministry supporting and liberating the mentally ill of his day. How he did it is not important … he was a man of his time … but that he cared for them and freed them from their burden is what matters most.
In presenting this exorcism as Our Lord’s first miracle, St Mark wants the reader to understand how Jesus cherished and cared for the sick; and that of all the sick he cared for, he appears to have spent most of that time with the mentally ill.
Since the pandemic hit us last March, we are hearing about the increasing number people affected mentally by the lockdown restrictions. Many are suffering anxiety and depression, including those who have to endure long intervals of being alone and without human contact. If you are mentally affected in any way during this lockdown, be assured that the Lord is in solidarity with you in your struggles as he was with those who had struggles in his time. Jesus demonstrated in the synagogue that there is no power on earth greater than God’s. So we commend you and all with mental struggles to the Lord’s care and ask him to grant us all endurance and hope for a better future.
Holy Name, Jesmond
31 January 2021