Monday, January 23, 2012

Demons, Possessions, and Unclean Stuff

The gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary for this week is Mark 1:21-28. It is the story of a man in the synagogue where Jesus is teaching, who confronts Jesus and whom Jesus promptly casts out. The crowd is amazed.

So am I. At many levels. And I don't even believe in literal demons.

I am amazed at the wisdom behind stories of demonic oppression. It seems to be an ancient way of recognizing that sometimes we are caught up in forces that are not genuinely us, but are so powerful and compelling that they seem to possess us. The word, "possess" is not actually in this story, and I think that we probably use that word too much. But, again, I think it is a means of demonstrating that people are not always under their own control.

Here are some interesting things about this story:
- When Jesus 'entered' the synagogue (v.21), the same word εἰσέρχομαι can be used to describe how Satan or an unclean spirit 'enters' someone.
- When Jesus is described as one 'having' authority, the same word ἔχω can be translated 'possessed.'
- There is a chiastic structure to this text. Like this:

21. And [he] was coming into Capernaum.  And immediately on the Sabbath he came into the synagogue teaching (or, teaching in the synagogue). 
22. And [they] were amazed about the teaching of him, for he was teaching them as having authority and not as the Scribes.  
23. And immediately [there] was in their synagogue to him a man in an unclean spirit [or, ‘a man with an unclean spirit was in the synagogue’], and he cried aloud
24. Saying, “What to us and to you, Jesus Nazarean?  Have you come to destroy us?   I know who you are, the holy of the God.
25. And censured [from ‘to set a value, access a penalty’] him Jesus saying, “Be silent and come out out of him.” 
26. And convulsing him the unclean spirit and crying out a great voice exited out of him. 
27. And were amazed all, so that to ask to each other saying, “Who is this?  This teaching with authority?  And to the unclean spirits he commands, and they listen to him. 
28. And came out the report of him immediately all places into the whole region of Galilee

 - The unclean spirit disobeys and obeys Jesus. Jesus says, "Be silent" and the spirit "cries out with a loud voice." But, Jesus also says "Come out of him" and the spirit "exits out of him." That snotty little spirit.
- This spirit has a habit of being loud - see vv.23 and 26.
- The spirit says, "I know who you are, the holy one of God," but the crowd ask each other "Who is this?"
- The word for "authority" exousian in vv.22 and 27 could be translated as "power of choice, liberty of doing as one pleases" - which is the opposite of one who is driven by an unclean spirit.

Those are my raw observations about this text. Later this week, I'm going to wax theological about it. Until then, what do you find intriguing about this story?


  1. Thanks for these thoughts. I minister to people w/ developmentla disabilities who sometimes struggle for self control. I do wish I or someone had the authority to cast out the "demons" that they struggle with.

  2. I really feel that we do a disservice to wisdom of this text if we either take 'demons' literally and make this a contest to see who can exorcise or not. Or, if we simply dismiss it as a vestige of a bygone mythological age.
    I'm going to approach the text as a trove of wisdom, that sometimes there are powers that can be enormously self-destructive, and seem to be 'one' with a person, but still separable. I love how Jesus looks at this man, addresses the unclean spirit, and orders it to come out of 'him.' Jesus does not confuse the man with the thing that is driving him to act as he does. What a wonderful way of confronting evil and still having compassion on the one whose own life is being wrecked by it.

  3. There might be a distinction between "unclean spirit" and "demon." They are different terms. In these verses the unclean spirit is already in the gathering and suddenly appears. It seems the sense is not of a demon insisting on serving Satan, but a spirit that leads the community to distraction, away from attention to the Lord. It is that kind of spirit in a person that disrupts the meeting with frivolous or fruitless comments, usually to shock and draw attention.

  4. That is a good observation, Chris. I have, at times, been critical of lumping "unclean spirit," "demon," and "evil spirit" together - since I like to assume that biblical writers mean what they say.
    However,I also admit that the language seems kind of fluid among the biblical writers, which might indicate that they, too, tended to lump a lot of these terms together. Precision is pretty hard to come by here, as far as I can tell.
    Thanks for chiming in!

  5. Very helpful blog and comments. Thanks

  6. Very helpful blog and comments. Thanks

  7. I think the unclean spirit is an example of someone who, like a scribe, can recite the law, but lacks an understanding of its essence. This reading builds on Paul's epistle about "food." I think it is safe to assume that the person with the unclean spirit challenged Jesus on some theological point, and Jesus, "spoke with authority"
    thereby enabling the person to understand and gain wisdom and his "unclean spirit" was cast out. Jesus's teachings were so revolutionary that they left the crowd in awe and word spread about this new interpretation of Moses's law.


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