I had to do a little more than my usual amount of reading and research this week. The scripture passage describes a time when Jesus went into the synagogue in Capernaum and cast out an unclean spirit, or what we might call a demon.
I had to do some extra research this week, because I can’t recall ever having met a demon. I’m pretty sure I’ve never introduced myself to one, shaken his hand, or chatted over a cup of tea. I might have had a demon or two knock on my front door last Halloween, but I have my doubts as to whether or not those were really demons.
No, the truth is that I’m not even sure what a demon looks like. I’ve seen movie previews that showed demons; just a few weeks ago, all the bus stops had giant ads for a movie called Devil Inside, ads that showed the face of an apparently demonized person, and which gave me the creeps everytime I saw one. I wish they wouldn’t put ads like that where people could see them.
I’ve also seen classical depictions of demons, like the one on today’s bulletin cover…. But I really have my doubts that any of these show what a demon really looks like.
Once, when I was a child, I did see – or thought I saw – a glimpse out of the corner of my eye, one of Santa’s elves spying on me to see if I was being good or bad.
It happened while I was playing around with a sleeping bag on the living room floor, crawling into it head first, all the way in to where it was pitch black. It seemed to me a very brave thing to do, because I couldn’t see a thing. It was dark, and it was claustrophobic, which of course made it very exciting … until I saw a little speck of light flicker for just an instant.
I came out of that sleeping bag so fast you would have thought it was on fire! It was many weeks before I dared to crawl back in that sleeping bag, and even then, I would only do so the normal way, feet first, with my head sticking out at all times.
Well, today I have other ideas about what that bright speck I saw was. It might have been a flash of light caused by my exertions squirming around inside the sleeping bag at a moment when my eyes shifted from side to side while my heart beat and blood surged through. The same thing happens today sometimes if I stand up too fast….
Or it may have been a micro-gap in the fabric of the sleeping bag, or in the zipper, that allowed a few photons of light from outside to pass through.
I don’t know for sure what it was, but I am pretty sure – and have been for some time – that it was not one of Santa’s elves surreptitiously spying on me. I am convinced – and have been for some time – that there is a rational, scientific explanation for what I saw.
Which is kind of how I feel about demons. In our society, most people do not believe in the literal existence of demons. Some do; some who lean more toward fundamentalism. And throughout the world, many who live in less scientifically advanced societies believe in the literal existence of demons.
But that’s not most of us. So the fact that Jesus apparently believed in demons – and made casting out demons a prominent part of his ministry – thus presents a real challenge for people of faith in our society. What are we to do with these stories, if many of us no longer believe in demons from another world inhabiting the souls of humans?
One thing we have to do is take these stories seriously. It’s not enough to just say, “Oh, it’s mental illness, and they didn’t understand mental illness back in those days.” There is probably some truth to that statement; and yet, there is a lot more to these stories than that.
Scholars have noted that the first century seems to have been a particularly active period for demons and exorcisms. Although scripture says that Jesus acted with an authority that was rare, he was far from the only exorcist around. There were exorcists all over the place.
Scholars have also compared Galilee in the first century with other cultures where demons and exorcisms seem to be prominent. They discovered that one thing these cultures all had in common is that they were all under the control of a foreign colonial empire, an empire that came in and took possession of the land and of the people; an oppressive, dehumanizing, outside power.
In other words, the possession of individuals by demons seems to occur more often in a society that is possessed by an overpowering outside force.
Do you see the connection?
Rome had occupied Galilee, Judah, and the surrounding regions. The Roman Empire had come in and taken control. Every person’s life was now defined by Rome. Even the synagogues were, in a very real way, controlled by Rome. They had become, as the scripture says, “their” synagogues.
What the people needed was an exorcist. One who could come in and cast out this overpowering, demonic force.
I came across this explanation in a book by John Dominic Crossan, who is one of the leading biblical scholars of our day. However, I wasn’t quite sure about Crossan’s theory that individual demonic possession was a sign of a society’s possession by a foreign, colonial power, so I kept reading.
I was led to an ancient Jewish book called Enoch, or 1 Enoch, since there is also a 2nd Enoch and a 3rd Enoch. It is not canonical, which means it is not an official part of scripture, but it did influence some authors of scripture, and the book of Jude (right before Revelation) even quotes the book of Enoch.
Enoch talks about the Nephilim, which are half-god, half-human giants that are mentioned in the sixth chapter of Genesis. According to Enoch, these giants – these Nephilim – breathe out demons into the world.
But Enoch doesn’t mean this literally. Enoch identifies these giants and their evil spirits with the oppressive, dehumanizing institutions of the time: the kingship, the temple, and the priesthood.
Of these institutions, these Nephilim, these giants, Enoch says that “they take no food, but nevertheless hunger and thirst and cause offenses. They consume all the acquisitions of human beings; and when human beings can no longer sustain them, they turn against them and devour humankind.”
In Jesus’ time, the kingship, the temple, and the priesthood so dominated society that they deprived people of their livelihood. They made people into something less than human. New Testament professor Herman Waetjen wrote this about these institutions: “Metaphorically viewed as giants, they were too powerful to be conquered or overthrown. They breathed evil breath, unclean spirits, into society;” unclean spirits that took away people’s autonomy, glory, honor, freedom, and dignity.
Let’s go back to Enoch. Enoch says: “evil spirits have proceeded from the giants’ bodies… The spirits of the giants afflict, oppress, destroy, attack, do battle, and work destruction on the earth and cause trouble.”
So: evil spirits come from the giants. The giants, in turn, are really the institutions that took away people’s rights, oppressed them, and denied them their humanity.
It is significant that Jesus’ encounter takes place in the synagogue. This is twice pointed out. He was in their synagogue.
It’s clear that, in Mark’s gospel, the synagogue is a socioreligious institution aligned with Rome. Rome was using the synagogue to help carry out its agenda, and the synagogue went along. Which makes the synagogue one of the giants; it had become, according to Professor Waetjen, “a subversive reality which fosters necessity, bondage, destruction of individual sovereignty, and living death.”
An exorcism is clearly a victory over the powers of oppression and dehumanization. When Jesus cast out demons, he was casting out the powers of oppression and dehumanization. He was demonstrating that the kingdom of Rome was no longer in control. The kingdom of God was now at hand.
So, for me, the definition of a demon is this: an overpowering, outside force that takes control of one’s mind and one’s life.
An overpowering, outside force that takes control fo one’s mind and one’s life.
I have my doubts about whether there were or are little creatures running around that fit this description. But I do not doubt that these overpowering forces exist in many other forms. Just look around: examples of people losing their minds, having their minds come under the control of outside forces, are everywhere.
If institutions were a problem in Jesus’ day, they are even more so today. Back then, they were too powerful to be conquered; today, they are too big to fail. Indeed, as a nation, we are under the overpowering control of big corporations. Corporations have more favored status in the lawbooks of our nation than human beings do, and politicians of either party are helpless to stop them. It is the corporations that shape our economic laws, our environmental regulations, our health care policies, and our elections.
Because of this, our corporations are making billions of dollars in profit, and yet, at the same time, we can’t even afford to keep our public schools open. It’s hard for me to think of a greater injustice than this.
To restate the words of Enoch: “they consume all the acquisitions of human beings; and when human beings can no longer sustain them, they turn against them and devour humankind.”
How much are you really in c0ntrol of your life? To what extent are you in control of what takes place within your own mind? So many people find their minds consumed by staying ahead, owning the latest technology, wearing the latest fashions, … and worrying, constantly, about falling behind.
As soon as we buy something brand-new – the moment we bring it home – it starts to lose its luster. But that doesn’t stop us from thinking that the next thing we buy will be the thing that truly makes us happy.
Seriously…. We must be out of our minds. The happiest, most fulfilling, most meaningful moments in life have nothing to do with buying something new. We know that that’s true. I don’t need to tell you. But we’re always looking to go buy something new, anyway.
I can only conclude that an overpowering, outside force has somehow taken control of our minds and our lives.
For some people, their mind is controlled by an insatiable desire for power. For others, an insatiable desire for sex; or alcohol, or fame, or facebook, or video games, or drugs.
We don’t want our minds and our lives to be controlled by such things, but sometimes we find ourselves unable to resist.
We want to be free.
We want to be human.
We want to be able to think for ourselves.
That is what Jesus does for us. Jesus sets us free. Jesus saves us from the forces that enslave us and possess us.
When we unite our lives with the way of Jesus, the powers that oppress us now cease to distress us. When we unite our lives with the way of Jesus, we are saved from weak resignation to the evils we deplore. From the powers that long have bound us, Christ frees our hearts to faith and praise.
And the demons possess us no more.