Sunday, January 31, 2021
“The Devil made me do it!” Of all the excuses created in the human psyche, perhaps this is one of the lamest. It’s too easy an excuse! Where’s the creativity? The calculation? The craftiness? Of course, caught red-handed or with the proverbial hand in the cookie jar, “the Devil made me do it!” proves we are desperate to maintain innocence, evidence to the contrary. Indeed, we all want to preserve our dignity. We need to maintain our pride. Who doesn’t entertain delusions of grandeur from time to time, seeing ourselves for more than we can or should? I suppose there are times when, “the Devil made me do it!” is actually the best we can do. We do not know exactly why we do something that creates a problem or causes pain or compromises a relationship. Indeed, this truth goes back millennia. The apostle Paul writes, “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” Sound familiar?
Perhaps, if we could think long enough there may be a trail of crumbs that we could follow back to the origin of why we, ultimately, acted a certain way. However, sometimes, “The Devil made me do it.” is the easiest out. Rationality be damned. Cause and effect to the contrary. We were hijacked. A force beyond our control took over. We even say as much at times, “I wasn’t myself.” Yet, what, exactly, do we imagine when we use the term “Devil”? A creature in a red union suit and a pitchfork? Evil personified? And, if so, how? Must we then subscribe to a cosmic tug-of-war as the nature of the world and life? God the source of goodness, life, and love? The Devil a worthy adversary meting out pain, death, and suffering? The tug-of-war rope moving one way and then the other as the titans play out their contest, our lives collateral damage?
Not a very satisfying answer.
Furthermore, if we reject such a worldview, prefer a more complicated understanding of the world beyond, “The Devil made me do it!” what do we do with these stories in the Bible about unclean spirits? Literally, the Devil making someone do something? How do we read the story of the man with the unclean spirit in today’s gospel? What, exactly, was the man suffering from? What was it that Jesus convulses out of him? How did that look? Surely, it wasn’t some scene from Alien where a monster breaks through the skin of the man! But then what? To our modern ears such imagery seems so foreign. We are scientific. Rational. While we recognize that there are many things that defy explanation, we also appreciate that we can’t blame everything on some demonic force beyond human responsibility or understanding, right?
Then what do we do with this story? Are there connections for us? How do we read first century exorcism with 21st century eyes?
To begin, the man with the unclean spirit certainly was sick. Perhaps he was epileptic and had seizures. Perhaps he suffered some type of mental illness. Regardless, the uncertainty of his convulsions and the visual of them would certainly make people in that era think that he was possessed. At a critical level, he had no control over himself. Whatever his malady, there was something that was just not quite right with this fellow. And he paid for it. He would have been ostracized. He would have been considered unclean and a sinner simply because of his illness. He would have lived a marginalized life because of what he was born with. Nothing he did warranted this treatment. Nothing he could do would be able to redeem him or restore him to the community. Yet, this outsider, this sinner, this sickly man is the very first person in Mark’s gospel to confess Jesus as “The Holy One of God.” And Jesus offers him a new lease on life. “Be silent, and come out of him!” is all that Jesus says. The man was restored. Renewed. Revived. For he was dead to a full life, dead to a possible future, and certainly dead to the community in which he lived. Yet, now he is alive.
And is this not true of our own experiences? Perhaps not as profoundly as this man in today’s gospel story, but do we not also know of those experiences in life, moments of our being, things that we do and say that separate us from ourselves, others, and God? Those things from which we cannot backtrack and find our way into favor or reconciliation? Moments where the door is shut and we cannot reclaim what once was? We realize that we cannot redeem or restore ourselves. We do not use the vernacular of “unclean spirits,” however, those locked in the pernicious and unrelenting grip of addiction know what helplessness is. Those who have random injury or illness befall them understand the precariousness of life. Those who struggle with mental illness recognize the limits of their power. Indeed, the roots of systemic racism and white supremacy that Joel Edward Goza outlines in America’s Unholy Ghosts is a brutal reminder of how limited we are, precisely in the moments that we think we are all powerful. As they say, denial ain’t just a river in Egypt. And what we are called to is a clear-eyed assessment of our life. Try as we might, we cannot save ourselves.
However, into those moments the narrative of today’s text reminds us that Jesus enters in, speaks words that bring hope and healing amidst the struggle, and, ultimately, offers new life. Not always in the way that we can recognize or confirm beyond the shadow of a doubt that we are not alone. Rather, the form that Jesus takes to assure us that he is always with us is paradoxical. He enters into the suffering to redeem it. That is, through the cross, Jesus reclaims the suffering prior to that moment and eternally beyond it. He knows abandonment because he has experienced it. He is present in rejection for he went through it. He possesses compassion for any and all who are marginalized because he embodied it.
In many ways, the healing stories of Jesus are mini-resurrection accounts. They are moments where death holds sway. Jesus’ words or touch create a break in the reality of the person. They bring the individual back to life. The stories also function as a reminder of the primary resurrection of Jesus from which all these others emerge. The stories are reminders to those in the early Christian community about the transcendent nature of Jesus’ presence and healing. He brought life in the midst of death, and out of death and resurrection, he continues to come to oppose that which robs God’s children of life and to invite them into that life God intends. Thus, we are part of the community of the man with an unclean spirit. His healing is a sign of God in Christ’s ongoing healing. Healings--of loss, of separation, of brokenness, of dead-ends--healings that continue to this day and point to the ongoing resurrection that is Jesus’ presence with us. Restoration. Reconciliation. Wholeness. That which we cannot create, and that which we desperately seek. The Devil may not make us do it, however we also realize that we can’t do it on our own. There is one who stands with us, by us, for us. He speaks, even now, words that call us out of death and into life.