Epiphany 4: Healing and Destruction

Gospel: Mark 1:21-28.

Taken within its own worldview (and so accepting, for example, that an ‘unclean spirit’ is an unclean spirit, and not, for example, the manifestation of an illness), this story is about the power and authority of Jesus. Mark chooses to show this through the actions of Jesus in calling forth the spirit, and to tell us what this means by reporting the comments of the audience. He doesn’t – I am inclined to call this an unfortunate choice – report what teaching Jesus gives when he speaks “as one who had authority and not as the scribes”. This contrast doesn’t tell us much, either: scribes were writers and teachers of the law, but it’s clear that they could hold a range of views.

What are we to make of this incident, then? One point is to pay attention to what the man, and/or the unclean spirit within him, cries out when he is introduced into the story: “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.” Readers of Mark’s gospel are not surprised by the latter statement; we, too, are beginning to get the picture of who Jesus is – if the introduction with its quote from Isaiah didn’t tip us off, the baptism narrative should have done. Perhaps we should be asking the same questions, though: what have you got to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?

Jesus then rebukes the man/spirit for speaking, and calls the spirit out of him – the way this is phrased makes me think that he is probably speaking to the spirit throughout, and under the assumption that it was the spirit, rather than the man, who cried out; but it would be possible to read it differently (i.e. to read the command ‘be silent’ as applying to the man, and ‘come out of him’ as directed to the spirit. The practical problems of addressing two beings in one body, sometimes addressed in science fiction or fantasy literature but always somewhat difficult, are clear here – and made worse by the authorial choice not to name either of the beings involved). If it is the spirit whom Jesus asks to “Be silent, and come out of him,” it does not entirely obey, since it throws the man into convulsions and cries with a loud voice before leaving him (although it doesn’t speak any more words, and perhaps this is the significance of the command). For this unclean spirit at least the answer to “Have you come to destroy us?” seems to be “yes”.

We don’t know what happened to the man. Was he hurt by the convulsions? Did he miss his unclean spirit once he was alone in his body? Was he the centre of attention as evidence as the story spread?

For me, this story tells us something about what it’s like to encounter Jesus. Even a healing can be or feel destructive.

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