Reflection for Sunday 31st January

Reflection 31

Lectionary Passage – Mark 1 vv 21 – 28
Eleventh century fresco of the Exorcism at the Synagogue in Capernaum.

A Healing – A Man with an Evil Spirit

 The opening Chapter of Mark’s Gospel is quite long and is crammed full of incident and detail.  Mark uses the 45 verses to introduce his readers to some important themes.  He sets out the most important theme of all in the opening verse – ‘This is the Good News about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.’  He introduces us to John the Baptist who baptises Jesus.  Two verses tell us about the 40 days of temptation in the wilderness.  Then the account of Jesus meeting and calling the first four disciples.  And all of that is in just 20 verses!  Then, as it were, for Jesus it’s down to work.

One of the themes that Mark wants us to understand very clearly is that of the authority of Jesus as the Son of God.  One of the ways in which Mark underlines Jesus’ authority is in His power demonstrated in His miracles.  None of the other three Gospels have such an emphasis on the miracles, healings and exorcisms of Jesus.  Mark devotes a quarter of his Gospel to this aspect of the work of Jesus. Among eighteen miracle stories, thirteen tell us of specific healing stories – as well as some more general healing references, and four of the thirteen relate to what we might call exorcisms.  This is the first.

The setting is Capernaum – a town on the north-west corner of Lake Galilee, but the important part of the setting is the Synagogue in Capernaum.  Jesus joins in the Sabbath Worship and, as an acknowledged Rabbi, is offered the opportunity to teach there.  While the Teachers of the Law – the Scribes, taught with erudition based on long but dry traditions of the Jewish Law, the teaching of Jesus was immediately recognised as being different.  It had the note of authority.  God’s authority.

Then a man comes into the Synagogue and he is screaming.  He is possessed by a spirit that is identified as evil – a spiritual power that is opposed to God.  Here, as with the account of the healing of the Gerasene demoniac – Chapter 5, that evil spirit recognises Jesus and calls out ‘I know who you are – you are God’s Holy Messenger.’ The possessed man had asked two questions, ‘What do you want with us?’ (note the ‘us’- a multiplicity of demonic forces were at work in him) and ‘Are you here to destroy us?’  Jesus responds with two commands, ‘Be quiet, and come out of the man.’

It’s a graphic scene.  A congregation at Worship.  The interruption by a noisy, frenzied man. Strong forceful commands.  Effective words.  The man restored to wholeness.  An astounded crowd.  Jesus.

It’s a graphic scene but it is one that, for me at least, raises a whole host of questions.  One question is about faith and authority and I will come back to that.  Immediately there is the question about the man’s illness.  In Mark’s Gospel it seems that the phrases ‘unclean spirit’, ‘evil spirit’ and ‘demonic possession’ are almost interchangeable.  Using the Lectionary, we shall come to the story of the father and his son coming to Jesus and, from the description of the symptoms, it seems as if the boy’s illness could be ascribed to epilepsy.  Mark 9 v 14ff.  In our story now there is no detail beyond the phrase ‘evil spirit’ – a powerful force that shakes the man violently and causes him to cry out.  Perhaps the heart of this story for us, is not about our ability or otherwise to diagnose the man’s illness but our relating this account to our world and our life today.

As perhaps never before, we are now acutely aware of mental health issues.  There are demonic forces at work.  How else can we describe, for example, the plethora of scams in circulation at present; scams that involve emails that masquerade as genuine NHS communications offering vaccine injections that obviously do not exist in return for the details of a vulnerable person’s bank details?  There are people who cry out – even scream, in anguish.  Television reports this week have included interviews with doctors and nurses on the very edge of breakdown, stretched to the limit and beyond in their work on Covid wards. Or a pair of nurses working in a hospital mortuary and in tears because of the seemingly endless flow of bodies brought for their care.  Or a former soldier weighed down and deeply disturbed with memories of the unspeakable sights and sounds of his periods of service in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Or a mother on reduced income trying to cope with her children ‘s home schooling without internet access or any device.  All of us (properly) restricted under late but sensible regulations and longing for the sort of human contact within family and congregation that is not just the norm but also a vital part of our humanity.  There is undeniable, immeasurable suffering and mental anguish.

The virus has a violent hold on us all, and we cry out.

Of course, I have questions about the nature of the mental illness of the man in the synagogue.  What is clear to me is the authority of Jesus and the efficacy of His words.  In the account, there is no mention of faith – neither the faith of the man nor of anyone else.  What is clear is that the healing of this man in so much need took place in the synagogue, within the context of a Sabbath Service of Worship and in the presence of the community of faith.

Put together the suffering and the need of people around us, ourselves as the community of faith and Jesus with his authority, his passion for the wholeness – mental, physical and spiritual wholeness, of all and His command to whatever force disrupts that wholeness ‘Be Quiet.  Come out!’

In the Lectionary passage we have discovered a great story, a story which Mark puts right at the beginning of all the healing stories he goes on to relate and one he uses to show the growing awareness of the power and authority of Jesus.  I believe it will remain as just a great story unless we take it and use it to ask questions.  Questions of ourselves, our need and of our faith in the authoritative healing power of Jesus.

Healing for us, and who else?

Bryan Coates
January 2021