“A few years ago the New York Times ran a series of articles on the Ten Commandments, looking for contemporary examples of this ancient law code. In the piece that dealt with the injunction against images/idolatry there was a profile of a 35 year-old woman named Beth Senturia. Ms. Senturia believes she has seen the reality of idolatry in her own life in her obsession with the musical group Phish. She spent a few years following Phish from concert to concert. She couldn’t hold down a job or think about anything other than the band and its lead singer Trey Anastasio. In the end she attended 207 Phish concerts, joining thousands of other fans who sported t-shirts that said things like “Trey Is God!” and who treated each concert like a worship service. Ms. Senturia thankfully snapped out of her slavish devotion to this band and the nomadic, rootless existence it brought about for her. But if you talk to her now about graven images, she’ll know exactly what you mean.1
There are a lot of things like that in the Bible; miraculous healings, nod your head, OK…talking donkeys, OK….demonic possession, nod your head, OK. But today’s Gospel lesson is chock full of them. Jesus just seemed to run into all kinds of troubling people and situations all the time, wherever He went. In just the couple of days He was hanging out in Galilee, presumable just to pick up the first disciples on the way to spreading the Gospel across Israel, Jesus healed tons of people and cast out innumerable demons. Perhaps we can’t relate to a story like this.
“In all likelihood few if any of us have ever looked at another person only to conclude, “Well, he’s demon-possessed all right. No doubt about it.” Some people may be weird or untrustworthy or hostile, but that’s a far cry from thinking they are full of an unclean spirit. We just don’t talk that way in the ordinary run of our ordinary days. So what do we make of Mark’s presentation of Jesus the exorcist? Is this demon business a little like graven images–something that used to exist but is now just a throwback to a bygone era? If you go through an antique store with your grandpa, you’ll run across lots of outdated stuff. Maybe you’ll ask Grandpa, “What’s this thing?” and he’ll reply, “Well, long time ago we used this to make toast.” Is that what Mark 1 is like–a kind of theological antique, a relic from an age long gone?”2 Stuff like this doesn’t seem to happen anymore.
Except it does. We might not like to hear about it; we might prefer to label things like demonic possession as the superstitions of the simple or the error of the unsophisticated. Few of us have ever been in the physical presence of pure, unmitigated evil, at least that we know of. But the devil, his greatest trick is convincing the world that he doesn’t exist. Satan is the opportunist par excellence; we are only fooling ourselves if we think of the devil and his minions show up only to spew pea soup and defenestrate the young priest.
My friend Fr. Mitch and I, one thing we can talk for hours about is our frustration with those leaders in our Church who dismiss the beliefs of those who came before us, those modernists who insist that somehow they know better than St. Paul or St. Augustine or whoever, just because we happen to live now rather than then. Like G.K Chesterton said, “Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.” The ancients were not stupid; they might have been working with less information, but it was not lesser information.
“Someone once suggested that the reason there were so many demons around Jesus all the time may be similar to the reason why when you go to the E.R. at the local hospital you find so many injured people. It would be rather foolish to see injured people at the E.R. but to then say, “Earlier today I was at the mall but I didn’t see any injured folks lying around there! How come so many cluster at the hospital?” The answer is so obvious as to make the question absurd. So also here: as the very incarnation of God’s kingdom, Jesus attracted and drew out and unmasked the forces that opposed him.”
I have a feeling that if Jesus Himself were to walk around today, the same things would happen; evil would be revealed for what it is where it is. And remember that Jesus not only revealed the demons but drove them out, He rid the people of God of the demons that plagued them. The good news is that the same is true today: where Jesus is, the demons tremble; evil is scattered and goodness is multiplied. The good news is where Jesus is…is with us.
1. Scott Hoezee, This Week