Sometimes the language used in the Bible is “mythic.” Calling it myth does not discredit it. Myth does not mean “wrong.” Myth uses concrete finite things to describe or portray abstract and infinite things. In some ways, it is richer than technical vocabulary. The caveat with myth is that we should not understand its literal sense as its ultimate importance. “Unclean Spirit” is mythic language. We should not to try to translate it into a contemporary medical diagnosis, or to reject it as superstitious. This was something real that opposed God. In our baptismal liturgy, we ask “do you renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God?” There is something of this world that opposes God. In today’s gospel, told in mythic language, Jesus faces it.
The Unclean Spirit knows what is at stake. It identifies Jesus as “the Holy One of God.” In mythic terms, Jesus is God come to defeat evil spirits. A final cosmic battle between God and Satan is about to happen. This has many of the hallmarks of the apocalyptic, where evil wreaks its terror upon the world, but God crushes it. In Mark, things do not go according to the formula. Jesus does not destroy the unclean spirit; he tells it that it can no longer have this man. This is not a first step in a violent eradication of all unclean spirits. Jesus goes around Galilee exorcising, healing, cleansing, teaching—this is the dullest apocalypse ever. Where are the fiery chunks of stuff falling from the sky? And this “tour” of Galilee ends at Jesus’ hometown, where no one believes him or accepts him, and he is unable to do much. There is something about this apocalypse that eludes us. We must look at its partner scene if we want to understand it.
Mark writes so that almost every scene has a partner scene, a spot across the story that discusses the same things in a different way. Today’s gospel is the first time someone identifies Jesus as divine. Its partner scene is the crucifixion, the last time someone identifies Jesus as divine. When we look at the crucifixion, we see parallels with today. At the death of Jesus, Jesus cries with a loud voice, like the unclean spirit in today’s gospel. Then the spirit—or life—comes out of Jesus, like the unclean spirit comes out of the man in the synagogue. Immediately after Jesus dies, the curtain in the Temple is torn in two from top to bottom. That curtain separated the holiest place in the Temple from the rest of the world. It was decorated with a map of the heavens. It is as though heaven is ripped apart, intentionally, by God.
Immediately after this, the centurion supervising the crucifixion identifies Jesus: “Truly this was God’s son.” A centurion is a high-ranking NCO in the Roman army. In Mark’s day, Roman soldiers could not be Christians. Christians took seriously the commandment “no killing,” which made them ineffective soldiers. Christians also regarded the Roman army as a brutal and oppressive tool of a ruthless, cruel empire that opposed God. This centurion is not going to be Christian. So, naturally, he’s the first one. He identifies Jesus. Even the disciples couldn’t do that. Jesus’ death wins over evil’s agent on the scene.
What does this partner scene say about today’s exorcism in the synagogue? What does it say about Jesus casting out an unclean spirit, but not killing it? At the crucifixion, the Holy Spirit inspires the centurion and gives him faith. That couldn’t happen if Jesus smashed the centurion and all Rome with him. Maybe in today’s gospel, in the synagogue at Capernaum, Jesus defeats the unclean spirit but does not destroy it because Jesus is waiting for the spirit to come around. Maybe Jesus waits for the day when that unclean spirit does not accuse, “I know who you are—the Holy One of God,” but joyously confesses, “You are—the Son of God.”
Farfetched? I don’t know. The idea was endorsed by one of the theological heavyweights of the fourth century. Gregory of Nyssa was a bishop in Turkey and one of the intellectual fathers of the doctrine of the Trinity. Gregory once pondered what would happen to Satan. In the myth of Satan, Satan was the best and brightest of God’s angels. He didn’t want to do things God’s way, which was why he fell. In the myth evil exists because Satan, this frustrated angel, is trying to force his way despite God being greater. Some passages in Scripture even suggest that Satan knows he is going to lose, and is so mad he is throwing a fit, like when you’re about to win Candy Land but then draw the card that sends you back to Start so you throw the board. Gregory of Nyssa said, Satan is an angel and one of God’s creatures, and God will heal everything. So, Gospel says the day will come when God heals Satan. The day will come when the Devil says, “You are the Holy One of God,” and Jesus says, “Who’s my brightest angel? Come here, you!” God refuses to abandon anything God has created.
That’s good news for us. Whatever you’ve done, God refuses to abandon you. Whatever has been done to you, God refuses to abandon you. If you’re not ready for God, God will wait. God’s been waiting for Satan this long, God will wait for you. Sometimes the pain of the past is too much for us to talk about, now. There are parts of my life I don’t feel like talking about because they hurt too much. I’m happy not thinking about them. They’ve gone to a quieter place in me. I will come around on them eventually. It may not happen during life as we know it. God is here; God will wait.
If God is waiting for the centurion, the unclean spirit, and the Devil himself, then God is waiting for everyone. That means everyone matters, and despite God’s penchant for ripping holes in the boundaries we make, God imposes some boundaries. Jesus tells the unclean spirit, “Get out of him!” That’s a boundary. “You can’t be in him. Leave him alone. I’ll wait for you; I’m not going to let you hurt him.” Sometimes the unclean spirit in our midst is one who abuses another. Jesus says, “No more.” Sometimes the unclean spirit is a system that says, “Your kind can’t work here, your kind can’t buy here, your kind can’t vote here, your kind can’t live here, your kind can’t worship here, your kind can’t be.” Jesus will wait for those who perpetuate the system, even as Jesus works to free those in bondage to it.
Through the gospel today, God calls the Church, to be patient that works for justice and reconciliation in the world. Mark asks us, What does Jesus want for the man freed from the unclean spirit? What does Jesus want for the agent of Rome’s oppression, for whom God has waited patiently, and who now believes in God? Is it not to work to free others? Is it not to show the same patience that God has shown us? These may seem to contradict each other. Yet aren’t we each, in different measures, both one held captive and one who holds captive? Aren’t we each one who waits eagerly for God to free us, and one for whose coming around God waits patiently? We pray, “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who…wow, there’s a lot of sin!” That is how we are. God calls the church to be authentic in that situation.
I think of this week: the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists published its annual Doomsday Clock report—a metric on how close humanity seems to annihilating itself. “Midnight” is human racial suicide. We are at “two minutes to midnight,” which, first of all, is the name of an amazing Iron Maiden song, but ties the mark for the closest we’ve ever been to destroying ourselves. We were last this close when Stalin was alive and got the bomb. This estimate is due to the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the proliferation of world leaders who seem willing to use them, and major world economies ignoring climate change. What is to be done? Do we nuke the climate change culprits? No, that’s what we’re trying to avoid. Do we nuke the other guys with nukes? No, same problem. Do we let climate change destroy people with nukes? Same problem. Do we just do nothing? Same problem. It’s going to take the hard work of liberating people from the threat of nuclear war and habitat collapse, and an effort to reconcile all involved.
It’s the principle that’s in effect every time you realized you needed to ask mom and dad for help on something, only you were doing something you weren’t supposed to be doing. So you said, “Mom, Dad, I need to tell you something, but you have to promise not to be mad.” And as an adult you know that means it is something that would make you mad, and that if you’re going to help, you’re going to have to let go of being mad. Kid isn’t necessarily off the hook, but we’re going to have a solution rather than a blowup. That’s where the church lives on nuclear proliferation, on climate change, on cleaning Lake Michigan or protecting the Dunes, on clean water in East Chicago, on fair housing costs in Valparaiso, on access to addiction and mental health services in Porter County. That’s where the church lives as a community: patient, and freeing.