We are in the year of Mark’s Gospel in the three-year lectionary and Mark is not known for wordiness or narrative excess. Mark’s is the Twitter Gospel of his day and no I am not likening the writer of Mark to a certain President. The story told by Mark is done so in as few characters as possible, with little embellishment. The result is an abiding sense of urgency: Let’s go. We’ve got work to do. I’ll explain later. Which is how Jesus, seeks to engage with the unclean spirit in this week episode of Sundays readings. Succinctly, authoritatively, and with zero drama. “Be gone with you,” he says, as one who has the authority to command such things.
Which, of course, he does. He does not have time to mess around, over-explaining his every move. Follow him now and figure out the details later. Even the spirits obey him ... This notion of “possession” is so foreign to our contemporary context that many preachers are tempted to substitute the unclean spirit with a modern-day mental illness. A cautionary word in that regard: exploring mental illness as a sort of otherworldly influence can be dangerous territory. Even with the best of intentions, such interpretation can be fraught with all sorts of unintended implications for the hearer. And this I warn from observing an experience while an Ordinand.
A better approach—and a more textually accurate one—would be to explore modern-day understandings of authority. What people or institutions influence our daily decisions, for better or worse? Where do we get our news? What sources do we trust, and why? Whose opinions matter to us? And what impact do all of these voices have on our faith life?
Let’s look at Mark as Jesus enters into that crowded circle of influence. What does he have to say in the daily barrage of messages that we and the people of Israel back then encounter? How might Jesus’ words transform the other voices we have to process, and what “unclean spirits” might we need to exorcise in order to fully embody his spirit of love and mercy?
Take for example a text about food law that is not really about food law. Or rather, does not have to be about food law, for the contemporary audience. The gist is that the community of faith is no longer bound by some of the ancient code that distinguished them as God’s people. God has deemed “clean” for them much of what was forbidden.
However, it does raise the question of what do we follow and why? The question provides an opportunity for the modern-day faith community to explore its own messaging: What signs, symbols, or verbal cues do we employ, and what message do they convey to the community around us? In what ways do we hold on to ancient laws that no longer serve us? What do we follow and why?
The challenge is to explore deeply what we value and why. This challenge is something many Christians seem to struggle with. Many want to believe what they are told and stubbornly adhere to that although it may be of the mark. Whereas we are called and challenged to explore deeply the values Jesus taught and the context in which he applied them. Today a picture in a magazine will tell you that your look is not right—try this new wardrobe, or this new hair product. A radio ad will tell you that you need a new car. A TV commercial will insist that you must have a new cell phone.
The Open House sign on your corner might beckon, “This way to your dream home.” Reminiscent of the Rolling Stones song, “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” You will hear hundreds of these messages today. And every day. They are all invitations to spend yourself. Not just your money, but your very self, in the pursuit of things that will not give you the life you seek. The invitation to constant, unfettered acquisition is an “unclean spirit” in the life of our faith and culture. Those messages keep us isolated and anxious and fill us with a constant sense of inadequacy.