29As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. 30Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. 31He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.
32That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. 33And the whole city was gathered around the door. 34And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him. 35In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. 36And Simon and his companions hunted for him. 37When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” 38He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” 39And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.
Jesus continues the radical reclaiming of God’s possessions as he liberates Peter’s MIL from a fever, then people from their illnesses and diseases. He also continues to throw demons out of the people they’re possessing. My Inner Teenager sees a lot of kicking ass and taking names. This isn’t a gospel, it’s an action flick.
OK, it’s a gospel. But an active gospel that describes Jesus as one who confronts some truly powerful forces and renders them harmless. And here is where the gospel breaks with the action flick genre: Jesus uses not a single firearm. Not one rocket launcher. Instead he brings the full force of God’s Spirit and God’s word against all these forces that have subdued people and their communities. These are the tools that bring overwhelming force into the conflicts that Mark describes.
Mark’s gospel narrative begins with Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptizer in the Jordan river. As he comes out of the water, he sees the heavens literally torn apart and the Spirit descending upon him. Then that nice little dove of a Spirit literally throws him out–the Greek word is ekballei–into the wilderness. Ekballow is the same word used when Jesus casts out–throws out–demons. All this throwing out business makes for a lot of dramatic action, and we’re still about halfway through the first chapter!
He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them. In our time and place it’s easy to wonder why in the world Peter and family wouldn’t give the newly-healed woman a break and order out. But in that time and place, the sense of identity and honor found within the family by elder women was to serve meals, especially in a culture that attached honor to hospitality. Jesus has restored her to her rightful place of honor and identity. It may seem like a little thing, but notice that when Jesus touched her and lifted her up, the fever left her. Another powerful, controlling force had been evicted. Another person had been restored, or redeemed from the force that held her captive.
That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. 33And the whole city was gathered around the door. 34And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.
There’s no rest for the weary in this gospel. Jesus, like a good action hero, immediately finds himself in another conflict situation. This time, the business is brought to him. The whole city turns up at the front door with all manner of sick and demon-possessed people. As in the earlier account of Jesus’ conflict with the unclean spirit in the synagogue, the demons try to speak Jesus’ name, which in the Hebrew tradition is a way to assert power over an opponent. It’s why the God who speaks to Moses from the burning bush has no name but “I am who I am.” There are some truly fanciful narratives crafted by 1st century Jewish gnostics who opposed the Jesus Movement emerging within Judaism. They describe Jesus as someone powerful and crafty enough to gain the knowledge of God’s hidden name, and having stolen that name and hidden it in his thigh (an ancient ID chip, perhaps?) he was able to steal God’s power and do amazing things. In these tales it’s Judas who is the hero, who tricks Jesus into a situation where the divine name is recovered and he is rendered powerless. Then he is appropriately crucified with two other thieves. The climactic scene in one story involves Judas and Jesus flying around the room locked in combat as if they were in one of those modern, surrealistic kung-fu movies. Anyway, I digress………….
The Jesus we meet in Mark’s gospel is a bit of a thief in the way he has taken people away from the forces that had previously exerted ownership over them. Fevers, illnesses, diseases, and yes, demons.
How do we approach the notion of demonic possession in our time and place, where such things seem like fanciful notions that ought to be relegated to the realm of superstition? In today’s text study we heard from a pastor who had spent time in a third-world place where he witnessed exorcism rites. In each case, he said, the exorcist would continually call for the name of the demon that appeared to be convulsing and contorting the possessed. At some point, the name would finally be drawn out, and the exorcist would then call the demon by name and say, “In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, I command you to leave.” Almost immediately the person would stop writhing and convulsing and become limp in a peaceful sort of way. As he watched, he said it seemed the person had indeed been relieved of some sort of possession and had returned to normal.
Our discussion then turned to examples of drug and alcohol addicted people we have known, and how those addictions can take almost complete possession of a person,such that their personalities change to the point where they are capable of some truly evil behavior. These are possessions that break up families, destroy relationships, bring shame and degradation upon the possessed and upon those close to them. It’s interesting that perhaps the most powerful, transformative spirituality at work in the world today can be found in Alcoholics Anonymous, a movement with Christian roots. It’s also interesting how the earliest steps to transformation in AA involve naming. “I’m Bob and I’m an alcoholic,” says someone at an AA meeting. It’s seen as a necessary, primal step to acknowledge the condition, to name it, claim it, and then through submission to a Higher Power, to control it, to make it submit to a Higher Authority.
I’ve talked with drug addicts who have amazing stories of doing the most despicable things, even to family and friends so that they can feed their addiction. I’ve had some of these conversations in a Christian halfway house, where people find the strength to conquer the addictive force within them by subscribing to a disciplined pattern of Christian living. In a way, it’s a new form of monasticism emerging in our time amongst addicts, prostitutes, street people and convicts. Once they’ve found freedom from their enslavements to drugs and alcohol, they feel compelled to reach out to others and offer them this power to conquer their addictions. In a Bible study held in a sparely furnished living room, I witnessed these men reading and discussing the activities of Jesus in Mark and the implications for their own lives. For them, these stories of demonic possession and Jesus’ powerful authority over the demons weren’t just fanciful fiction. They were real, powerful stories that applied directly to their lives. And they were more than happy to talk about these things, making them living proof that Mark’s Action Flick of a gospel story continues to play out in our time and in some similarly amazing ways.
For those of us who aren’t possessed by such demons, it is perhaps as one pastor at the study observed, that it’s about the power Jesus brings against all forms of evil behavior. That might seem like a notion that still leaves us outside the story. But if we’re honest, perhaps we find that we also have some naming and claiming to do in our lives. In any case, the core message of Jesus’ activity in Mark is that God is determined to reclaim, redeem, and repossess everyone who has been taken over by forces they themselves can’t resist. And to take on such business, God has provided the ultimate action hero in this Jesus who isn’t sent with a license to kill, but a license to redeem. And the power to kick ass and take names. Oops, there goes my Inner Teenager again.
If you have some time, sit down with a modern translation of the Bible–NRSV, NIV, CEV, TEV, The Message–any of these is good at telling the old, old story. Open your Bible to this ancient action flick named The Gospel According to Mark. It’s short enough to read in one sitting, and that is a good way to read it. But hold on and get ready for one really wild ride.