(Manuscript below is not a verbatim)
This is one of those scripture passages that is often abused
This is not about mental illness.
When we have a passage like this one, we can avoid it, or we can talk about it. Passages like this one often give people pause. And a passage like this one should make you pause. With our modern ears, it sounds like the Bible is saying a demon or an evil spirit possesses people with mental health issues or people with epilepsy. But that misses the point.
To better understand healing stories in the Bible, we need to know that One of the primary ways Jesus teaches in the Gospels is through healing. It is how the story emphasizes the point Jesus is making. We see this in our story today: In the middle of Jesus’ teachings in the synagogue, a man with what is called an unclean spirit brings chaos by disrupting Jesus as he’s teaching. Jesus casts the unclean spirit out. After Jesus casts out the unclean spirit, when the people say, “A new authority! He even commands unclean spirits, and they obey him!” they recognize that his message, as we find in Mark 1:14, is, “Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!” This good news is authoritative.
Jesus’ primary teaching is that the kingdom of God is coming.
The unclean spirit is threatened by this good news. Jesus silencing and rebuking the unclean spirit is a demonstration of the Kingdom of God. In that moment, it is a manifestation of God’s kingdom.
Unclean spirits represent chaotic forces, everything that is not the kingdom of God. These chaotic forces totally disrupt the person’s life. It upends communities because the chaotic forces make the person violent a person’s communities are frightened by them, they are dangerous. They absolutely distort a person. So when the man is freed, he can be restored to himself and to his community.
A story like this one is less about whether or not the people then believe in actual demon-possessed people because that misses the point. The point is the good news. The good news is that God’s kingdom is near, and Jesus has the authority to proclaim it.
In popular culture and in some sects of Christianity, demon possession comes from the person’s lack of faith. Healing stories when a person is free from an unclean spirit or a demon are not about the person’s lack of faithfulness. I reviewed all the scripture passages in the Gospels that are about someone being healed specifically from an unclean spirit. In almost every instance, all of them are people Jesus comes across or others have been brought to him. Only two of them, he mentions the faith of the one bringing the person but not the faith of the person with the unclean spirit. Where faith is at play is the healed person’s response to the healing. Their response is one of joy and thanksgiving to Jesus and God.
I mention this in part because faith healing stories can be exploitative, shaming persons who struggle with mental health issues or with epilepsy.
Lacking modern medicine, people at the time largely believed an unclean spirit could possess a person. Demons were part of the cultural language of the time. Even, some of Jesus’ opponents said that he was possessed by an unclean spirit.
Jesus’ opponents thought the spirit he carried was destructive because the Kingdom of God he preached would bring uplift to the crowds of people who followed him. Jesus was teaching to crowds of exploited people, who spiritually and economically were malnourished.
Spiritual and economic well-being were malnourished among men. Outcast were among those who were denied participation in religious practices of the time by religious authorities, preventing them from being recognized as part of God’s fold and God’s people. Economically, they thrived because wealthy landowners in Judea had acquired lands, essentially causing impoverishment. These spirits of chaos acknowledged that Jesus rejected such malnourishment. Chaos forces cannot sustain themselves without recognition. There are people who become chaos agents, maintaining the status and power of exploitative practices. Often, they do so by becoming chaos agents, tricking and fooling people into believing they are on the side of the people. Exploitative chaos agents maintain the status quo, pretending that they do not, but they do. I have identified and considered some markers of what a chaos agent is.
A chaos agent says to do as they say but does not do it themselves. They target disadvantaged people, those with little power, or direct anger within these groups. They try to divide these groups into smaller ones. Chaos agents do not reassess their ideas in light of new information. They create spiritual chaos by telling more lies than truth, making it challenging to distinguish between right and wrong, leading to a sense of apathy or, conversely, tightening anger into antipathy and hostility.
Chaos agents create chaos for its sake, benefiting from it. They lack empathy and prefer violence over non-violence. Chaos agents are cruel; cruelty is their objective. In Jerusalem and Rome, chaos agents divided the people, using violence against their own people. Those who exploit people and leave a path of destruction are those Jesus would call us to reject, to cast them out. Jesus doesn’t want us to exploit people. That’s not the kingdom of God, and it’s not what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Jesus came to bring people together. The division arose in response to Jesus because chaos agents and forces of chaos were threatened by His gospel.
However, I don’t want to end on a negative note. I also want to talk about agents of change. Agents of change may create a bit of chaos in the moment, but chaos is not the point; it comes as a result of standing up against chaotic forces. The curse of an agent of change is that when they ask people to do something, they also do it themselves. Jesus asked His followers to take up their own cross, knowing that He was doing the same. It’s like seeing Gandhi marching with the people and Martin Luther King Jr. marching and going with the people. Congressman John Lewis marched along with the people; organizers of the bus boycott walked with the people, and organizers of sit-ins at lunch counters sat with the people.
Compassion is another marker of what it means to be a change agent. To come from a place of love, to love the people for the people, and to be with the people. When Jesus was asked by a rich man what he needed to do to inherit the kingdom of God, Jesus looked at him with love and said to sell all his possessions. Another marker of a change agent is loving our enemies. People in the civil rights movement took a stance of loving their enemies, showing them humanity and respect. Sometimes, chaos agents, as a piece of being an agent of change in a Christian way, are through non-violence. Violence was enacted against Jesus and His followers. The response from early Christians was not to respond in kind.
As I said before, agents of change may create a bit of chaos, as sometimes you have to flip tables over and call out an injustice or something that has been done wrong. Those who sat at lunch counters, protesting segregation, certainly created temporary chaos when those who were angry threw things at them. Agents of change call us to our better angels to rise above and see that change is possible. Agents of change rebuke agents of chaos by telling them to stop and not join their ranks. Jesus wants us to be agents of change, to manifest the kingdom of God here, and to be ready to be responsible but not to turn into the powers and forces of chaos. That’s not who we are called to be. To be a follower of Jesus is to resist with all the fiber of our being, to resist becoming an agent of chaos. We are called to be agents of change. Amen.