Casting out unclean spirits – old fashioned healing or humbug?

Today we hear of Jesus ‘casting out” an unclean spirit. What could this story mean to us in 21st century San Francisco? And what does it mean to be healed? Are we expecting miracles that let the lame walk free? Or do we seek something else with our prayers for healing – perhaps spiritual rather than physical healing? Join us for an interesting and thoroughly untraditional discussion of this Bible story.

At first blush, today’s readings may seem to be disparate bits of scripture gathered for no apparent reason. But the truth is these texts have a common them: prophecy. They work together to help us understand the work of a prophet and how we should identify a real prophet, one who has been sent by God.

Our reading from Jewish scripture (Deuteronomy 18:15-20) tells us a prophet is a gift from God and examines what it means to be a real prophet. A real or true prophet speaks God’s truth to us – whether that makes us feel good or bad, happy or angry, criticized or emboldened. Our role is to hear and heed the prophets God sends to us. And this reading warns us a prophet cannot speak for other gods, nor say what God has not said.

Today’s Psalm (Psalm 111) can be read as a response to our first lesson from Deuteronomy. In it, the people speak as a congregation to thank and praise God.

Our second reading from First Corinthians opens an interesting window into the conflicts and questions debated by first-century followers of Rabbi Jesus.  These early followers of Jesus the Christ were Jews who generally followed Jewish Law. Some of these early followers challenged St. Paul – the self-appointed Apostle to the Gentiles – about Paul’s willingness to exempt non-Jewish followers of Jesus from the Law. Today’s reading centers on the Jewish practice to not eat meat that was sold in the marketplace for fear it had been used in pagan sacrifice. Yet Gentiles who wanted to follow Jesus were accustomed to eating meat they purchased in the market. Paul’s answer is that those who are saved by Christ understand that food has no bearing on one’s relationship to God. However, Paulk says we are called to avoid offending those who follow this part of Jewish law. Later in the letter (1 Corinthians 10:32) Paul clearly instructs this mixed community of Jews and Gentiles to avoid offending the Jewish believers by what you eat.

In our Gospel reading from Mark, we return to the question raised in the first lesson: how do we identify a real prophet? First, Mark tells us, Jesus “taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” Second, the unclean spirit living in a man cries out: “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” Third, Jesus commands “Be silent, and come out of him!” Fourth “the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him.”

And finally, people observing this say: “What is this? A new teaching–with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”

We must remember the title “Holy One of God” refers to the prophet and healer Elisha (2 Kings 4:9). Here, we see Jesus as one who has the power to channel God’s kingdom to defeat evil. “

The Possessed – Mark 9:17-29

The chief priests of the Temple and scribes derive their authority from their understanding of scripture and tradition. But Jesus preaches – and heals – with power from God. Jesus commands, the spirit obeys, and people start to talk about Jesus as one with authority from God.
So what do we make of Jesus the Exorcist? Is that how we are to remember him – instead of Jesus the disruptor or Jesus the Healer, or Jesus the advocate for social justice?

Let us remember how Mark begins this Gospel – we begin in the wilderness with the heavens ripping apart. There we meet Jesus the boundary breaker, a role emphasized by this exorcism story. More important, this Jesus shows us a boundary-breaking God. Time and again Mark tells us how God destroys the barriers human minds and hands have made to divide the children of God one from another.

Every line we draw to divide us from them, every division we seek to make us feel comfortable and safe, are in fact easily shattered by the God Jesus introduces to us in the Gospel attributed to Mark. The lines we implant to divide white from people of color, straight from LGBTQ people, documented from undocumented worker, rich from poor, good from bad, acceptable from the other: each and every one of these puny men made lines in the sand is easily washed away by a God who – as the Prophet Amos said – “let[s] justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (Amos 5:24)

©Photo. R.M.N. / R.-G. Ojéda

As 21st century Christians, we are called to look at our own lives – and at our times – and identify the divisions, hurts, and policies which go against God’s all-inclusive love. We are called to be authentic prophets of the living God in this time and in this place. And we are called to consider what it means to be healed by God.

Some televangelists claim they can use the power of God to miraculously heal people. They say they can make the lame walk free. Time and again they appear to channel the power of God so a select few can throw off their crutches and walk unassisted. But that is not the kind of healing we pray for here.

Listen again to part of our prayer as we prepare to anoint people: we ask “that the afflicted might be raised up and their sins forgiven, bringing them to eternal salvation.” We ask that we may become a witness “to the marvelous power and presence of God. We ask that we “may experience Christ’s unfailing love.”

As a Hosptial chaplain, I sometimes am asked to pray for amazing miracles. Sometimes I adopt a simple mantra: “OK, that’s the miracle you want. But if you can’t have that, what would be the next best miracle” until we find a miracle that we can make happen. Sometimes that is as simple as holding a beloved pet or saying farewell face-to-face to an estranged relative.

The healing miracles I see are sometimes not what people seek, they are what they need. Today’s scriptures are selected to show how Jesus was seen by the author of the Gospel attributed to Mark and to introduce us to a boundary-breaking God who has no regard for man-made divisions which serve to divide And subjugate God’s children. Let us each strive to be prophets of this loving and living God. Let us pray.

O God, you spoke your word and revealed your good news in Jesus, the Christ. Fill all creation with that word again, so that by proclaiming your joyful promises to all nations and singing of your glorious hope to all peoples, we may become one living body, your incarnate presence on the earth. Amen.

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