The cultural distance between the world of this text and contemporary society presents challenges for interpretation.
To attribute symptoms of shouting and convulsing with possession by an unclean spirit is not consonant with our understanding of the causes of mental or physical illness. Exorcism may appear alien. Jesus’ confrontation in the synagogue has been read as Jesus teaching over and against “Judaism,” while it is more historically accurate to see Jesus’ deeds and words, his ‘new teaching” to make sense within, and not outside, the ideals of Jewish covenant faithfulness.
Within the narrative world of the gospel of Mark, this encounter is the first public deed of power in his ministry. The story sets up the conflict that structures the first half of the gospel and that was displayed in the temptation of Jesus by Satan in the wilderness. It is the conflict between the power of evil, associated with Satan (Beelzebul, Mark 3:22) and demons and the power of God exercised through Jesus. This cosmic conflict is reflected in the earthly realm by the struggle of Jesus with demons, the controversy between Jesus and “scribes and Pharisees,” and the tension between Jesus and his “mother, sisters, and brothers” (Mark 3:31-35).
The cosmic conflict has a social political dimension; possession by demons (legion) is parallel to occupation of the countryside by Roman power (Mark 5:1-13) The conflict is described in violent terms “have you come to destroy us?” Elsewhere it is likened to a battle for ownership of a house (Mark 3:21-27). People who suffer the effects of being occupied or “possessed” by demons lose their ability to control their movements and their voices; either they are immobilized or compelled to move destructively (Mark 9:20-22). They are self-destructive (Mark 5:5). Exorcism by Jesus results in healing and restoration.
In this episode the authority (exousia) of Jesus’ teaching contrasts with that of the scribes and is paired with his dramatic and effective exorcism of the unclean spirit. Those who witness it are amazed both by the authority of his teaching and his authority over the unclean spirits. The impact of his actions causes his reputation to grow throughout Galilee.
Within the account of the exorcism is a dialogue, initiated by the unclean spirit(s) who calls Jesus of Nazareth by name and appears to know his purpose — “have you come to destroy us?” The unclean spirit makes a demonic “confession”/recognition and calls him “the holy one of God.” Jesus’ responds by commanding him to “Be silent” and to “come out of him.” That the unclean spirit is the first to name Jesus and acknowledge his power is an early instance of Mark’s ironic reversals and surprises. Evil forces have the most to lose in the coming of Jesus and the “good news.” Apprehending the threat Jesus poses, the spirit exits the man with one last spasmodic movement and one final cry.
Preachers can exploit the detail and drama of the gospel of Mark to portray what is at stake in Jesus’ battle with Satan. The possession by demons illustrates the reality of evil and gives it, even for modern hearers, a shape and a sound. In this first skirmish, Jesus prevails, but not without the unclean spirit protesting and acting out. A preacher might play with the motif of voice in the opening scenes of Mark: the voice of the prophet crying in the empty wilderness, the voice from heaven speaking at the baptism, and here the voice of the man, which is at the same time, the voice of the unclean spirit, who shouts and cries out the name of Jesus, not with admiration but with fear. Is the cry with a loud voice with which he comes out, a death rattle, or a curse? As the story proceeds the opposing forces will gather strength, will do more damage, and will seem to silence Jesus himself (Mark 14:61). Jesus commands the spirit to “be silent” with the same word as he commands the sea to “be still” “be silent” (Mark 4:39). He rebukes the unclean spirit, the sea (Mark 4:30) and even Peter (Mark 8:33).
There are risks in identifying the forces of evil and of God in contemporary struggles too, specifically, particularly if one assumes oneself and ones’ own “people” to be on the side of God. Contemporary preaching in communities with political and economic power should be cautious about this. However, the community that performed and heard Mark’s gospel, was powerless and poor in a country occupied by a powerful empire. The theological imagination of the victory of God’s power over illness, disability, and danger was for them, lifesaving good news.
The ancient world view that attributes illness to unclean spirits that lies behind this story, although outdated medically, does dramatize forces that wreck havoc within individual, communities, and countries — mental illness, addiction, sexual abuse, and racial hatred. The gospel proclaims Jesus’ “authority” over even the most unclean of spirits that continue to take us over.
For the last two Sundays, the Hebrew lectionary texts have featured prophets, first Samuel, then Jonah — young persons and reluctant messengers.
We had to discern their effectiveness by what they said and did. We learned that as Samuel grew, “the LORD was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground,” the writer’s way of telling us that he was completely accurate (1 Samuel 3:19). From Jonah, we watched the fruit of his actions, as the people of Nineveh repented and God relented from destroying them. Thus, the prophet’s words make the difference (Jonah 3:10). According to these words in Deuteronomy, then, both Samuel and Jonah were “true prophets.” That’s easy enough to see.
As Moses describes the kind of prophet (one like him) that God sanctions, he anticipates their question: “You may say to yourself, ‘How can we recognize a word that the LORD has not spoken?’ “If a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD but the thing does not take place or prove true, it is a word that the LORD has not spoken. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously; do not be frightened by it” (Deuteronomy 18:21-23). But I am reminded of a saying I have heard from Rev. Dr. Yvette Flunder, the bishop of the Fellowship of Affirming Ministries. She often says: “The difference between a heretic and a prophet is time.” By this, she means that some things take time for us to know whether someone was telling the truth about the world, about God, about human nature. The Old Testament prophets were sometimes ridiculed as “mad men” or as people who only bore bad news (see Hosea 9:7 and Jeremiah 20:10). So, the question remains for us is, how shall we know?
It’s easy enough to revile and ignore people like Harold Camping, who “prophesied the end of the world on a specific date several times.1 Or to dismiss people from Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas as hurtful in ways God never intends and irrelevant to God’s work in the world. But to be saddened by people who rejoice in the current president naming Jerusalem the capital of Israel because they believe it is the beginning of fulfilling prophecy of Jesus’ return?2 Are there other, subtler, sayings among us that might ring true (or false), but only time will tell?
We must not forget that the text before us is not just instructions for Israel to live in a socially closed community that does not mingle with the cultures around it, but it also is a polemic against other religious traditions. As they prepare to “come into the land” God promises them, they are admonished they “must not learn to imitate the abhorrent practices of those nations” (Deuteronomy 18:9). We might remember that the writers of Deuteronomy are looking backwards on what actually happened as Israel acclimated itself to its neighbors (some scholars would say, as they who were already in Canaan grew into a distinctive tradition).
They were accused of passing their children through fire as a sacrifice (Deuteronomy 18:9; Ezekiel 20:31). Prophets accused them of practicing divination (1 Samuel 15:23; Jeremiah 14:14; Ezekiel 13:23; and one of the most significant recitation at 2 Kings 17, which lists several of the prohibitions in Deuteronomy 18, and which explains the end of Israel as a nation-state). But the very presence of those texts intimate that the people did not reject other ways of knowing God. Early in the kingship, Saul consults “the medium at Endor” (1 Samuel 28:7), and she accurately practices necromancy, even though the text says Saul had expelled all such spiritual leaders from the land (1 Samuel 28:3). What they ultimately are told is, not that such alternative religious practices are not efficacious, but that Israel is not permitted to use these practices, “although these nations…do give heed to soothsayers and diviners” (Deuteronomy 18:14).
When I visited Bahia in northern Brazil with a group of North American scholars on a study trip, a priestess of Candomblé told the scholars gathered two things: 1) In Brazil, when people receive the spiritual baths, the traditional offering for cleansing, “everyone is Candomblé on December 31.” She noted that even their more vitriolic opponents come to the temples to receive the potions for the bath. And she told us 2) that evangelicals were trying to destroy this tradition, that grew up during slavery and colonization as a hybrid of Catholicism and indigenous African spirituality, as a way for black people to survive the horrors of slavery. Prophecy, for her and others in that context, did not involve dismissing augury, signs, or divination. As we read these texts and prepare to preach them, we must think about the brutality with which they have been read around the world as colonizing forces used Christianity as an imperialistic tool to destroy whole cultures.
What today’s text reminds us is religiosity has been hybrid for centuries for God’s people, and we must figure out what calling people to a genuine faith means, as well as who speaks for God. In Deuteronomy, the person is a “prophet like Moses,” and reading his story, we know how flawed he was. Such news is good news because it makes each of us eligible to speak accurately on behalf of God. Moses once declared that he wished all God’s people were prophets (Numbers 11:29). Maybe we don’t have to be afraid of the random word, or even try to figure out whether it’s true or false. Perhaps discerning the way means watching over our own words and doing our best to speak rightly about God. Would that all God’s people were prophets, like Moses!
If I were tasked with introducing God as our visiting lecturer, I would use this psalm.1
Psalm 111 summarizes God’s “position,” accomplishments, and attributes. It even identifies a personal connection between the one offering the introduction and the one being introduced, which motivates a connection between God and those to whom God is being introduced.
PositionPlain and simple, as the Psalmist attests, this God is the true Lord of all.
AccomplishmentsGod’s curriculum vitae (CV) according to Psalm 111, includes a wide variety of accomplishments ranging from establishing and keeping covenants (verse 9) to providing food (verse 5). God has even sent redemption to his people (verse 9).
God shows people the power of his works (verse 6), which have been described as great (verse 2), full of honor and majesty (verse 3), faithful and just (verse 7). These works have been studied (verse 2) and have gained God renown (verse 4).
The precepts of this accomplished one are trustworthy and established (verse 7).
AttributesNot only are God’s accomplishments impressive, but anyone who knows God has met one who is gracious and merciful (verse 4), and ever mindful of his covenant (verse 5). Indeed, his name is holy and awesome (verse 9). This combination of accomplishments and attributes are rare in the divine. In fact, the combination can be found nowhere else but in our God, the Lord.
RelationshipsUsually those with such a combination of attributes and accomplishments remain at arm’s length from the masses. But not God; God connects with God’s people and encourages a profound intimacy with those who perform his precepts with faithfulness and uprightness (verse 8). Those who practice fear of the Lord will have a good understanding; they will be wise (verse 10).
The Psalmist has felt and attested to this intimacy by giving thanks to the Lord with his “whole heart” (verse 1). He puts his whole self on the line in the midst of the congregation for this one.
PresenceFinally, thankfully, it looks like this one will be sticking around. He’s not just stopping by for a temporary visit on his worldwide tour in order to broaden his fame. He’s on a worldwide tour, yes, but his righteousness endures forever (verse 3), his precepts are established forever (verse 7), he has commanded his covenant forever (verse 9), and his praise endures forever (verse 10).
Please join me in fearing and praising this one, who is, after all, not simply a “visiting” lecturer, but our ever-present teacher.
One can see how no one else could receive such an introduction. The Psalmist introduces us to God and we preachers have an opportunity to introduce (or re-introduce) God to others. Such an introduction prompts hearers to lead lives that mirror God. The latter is confirmed by the complementarity of Psalm 111 and Psalm 112. The two Psalms belong together. They are similar in organization; both are acrostic poems, which contain twenty-two lines with each line beginning with successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Even more, they utilize similar words and phrases: both refer to the upright (Psalms 111:1 and 112:2, 4), agents who are gracious and merciful (111:4 and 112:4), providers (111:5 and 112:9), and doers of justice (111:7 and 112:5). Both focus heavily on the future (in 111:8 the works are established forever and ever, and in 112:8 hearts are steady and in the end will triumph).
The amazing thing about this similar use of language is that one Psalm (111) is focused on the deeds of the Lord, as noted above, and the other (112) is focused on the deeds of those who fear the Lord. Could it be that those who fear the Lord are expected to act like the Lord? Even more, could it be that those who find great delight in his commands are capable of mirroring the deeds of the Lord? The complementarity of these two Psalms suggests so. Before our works righteousness detectors sound, note that Psalm 111 comes first; it is only because our Lord is already gracious and merciful and just that we are at all capable of being gracious and merciful and just.
For those preachers who will be focusing on this Sunday’s gospel reading (Mark 1), Psalm 111 offers a possible way to highlight Jesus’ accomplishments and attributes. Add to God’s CV Jesus’ accomplishments and attributes expressed in Mark 1 — he teaches as one with authority, and rebukes, even tames, unclean spirits. Feel free to go the next step of introducing God to the hearers by identifying God’s words and work spoken and performed in the midst of your setting. Doing so is testifying to this accomplished one just as the psalmist does, thereby prompting the praise of all.
Wouldn’t it be something then if God were able to introduce us as those who have given our whole selves to giving thanks to God (verse 1); those who have performed God’s precepts with faithfulness and uprightness (verse 8); and those who have a good understanding/wisdom because we have practiced fear of the Lord (10)!
1 Commentary first published on this site on Feb. 1, 2015.
The reading of 1 Corinthians 8:1-13 brings Christians face to face with issues of culture and ethnicities.
Does the Gospel of Jesus Christ erase people’s cultural values, identities, and ethical norms? Answering this question is not easy because when the gospel encounters people’s way of living, an engagement begins and this involves a two-way navigation of mutual love and trust. Paul raises the issue of knowledge that makes people proud and at the same time he introduces love that builds (1 Corinthians 8:1). While there must be boundaries between gospel and culture, the truth of the matter is that Jesus’ incarnational presence is always transformative in ways that are a mystery, allowing believers to be hyphenated-Christians who wrestle with issues of “idols” of culture and at times idols of the heart.
There are so many diverse and plural versions of Christianity today and like the Corinthian Christians, this passage confronts 21st-century gospel with the need to navigate cultural boundaries with grace. The message of the passage is about how cultural and ethnic people reorder and reorient their lives when encountered by the gospel of Jesus Christ. The Corinthians had to discern their new faith in the context of cultural and ethnic diversity of which each was called to surrender old ways of living and embrace new Christian values of obedience to Jesus Christ — faith, hope, and love. Instead of worshiping many gods, Christians in various global contexts are called to a monotheistic faith. While their identities will not change and even be erased, faith in God becomes the primary lens through which they define and see themselves.
The question of loyalty to God becomes a requirement and confession of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior replaces all other cultural underpinnings (1 Corinthians 8:7-13). Worship of idols is a foreign concept to most people but in the postmodern world, most church members are affiliated with certain clubs and fraternal orders which also demand their loyalty. In this passage, Paul warns against such practices because they become modern forms of idolatry in a culture that claims Christianity as its religious identity.
In a political world, Christians find themselves attracted to subcultures such as the National Rifle Association, political parties, and sororities to which their loyalty is demanded. It would be a great topic in a Sunday School class to discuss whether we see ourselves being called out by Paul. In what ways do these clubs align themselves with our faith in Jesus Christ? In what does this chapter challenge our Christian faith and rethink on our allegiance to many other subcultures?
From a Pauline Christocentric theology, allegiance to all forms of clubs is counter to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The way many 21st-century Christians accommodate, assimilate, rationalize, and compromise their faith in a world of so many allegiances prevents one from being an authentic witness of the Gospel. Therefore, idolatry whether in worshiping cultural gods or clubs is no different to what Paul was warning Christians against in Corinth. If Corinthians is our email or letter, then it addresses us and a response of obedience is called forth from each one of us who are the belly of modern subcultures.
At the center of this passage is maybe the issue of religious syncretism, which is present in many Global Christian groups. Paul seems to warn Christians then and now that cultural rights have to be surrendered if one is to authentically serve God. Because of globalism, trade, and social media, idolatries are becoming more and more, so much that it becomes normal for us to be part of this new world order.
In the midst of all this, Christians may find themselves drifting away from Christ and with time worship of God becomes a secondary phenomenon. The questions then become: In what ways can the Church maintain allegiance to Jesus Christ and be a Holy Community? Can one live as a hyphenated Christian, yet faith requires worship of God alone? How will those weak in faith become mature in a world demanding their allegiances? These questions are crucial and we should always keep them in front of our daily walk with Christ and help people not to lose their faith in Jesus Christ, even in the midst of technology and globalization.
All in all, our rights or prerogatives are called into question in this passage. The educated and the rich are called to be careful about ways they rationalize what they do in order to ease their conscience and still claim to be loyal to Jesus. In other words, our education and wealth life styles can easily become idols and thus prevents us from living a fully authentic discipleship life. Anything can be a stumbling block to faith and Paul warns Corinthians and also cautions 21st-century Christians to be aware of their affluent life.