Wednesday, February 01, 2012

January 29, Epiphany 4; Passionate Spirituality 4: Unclean Spirituality

Deuteronomy 18:15-20, Psalm 111, 1 Corinthians 8:1-13, Mark 1:21-28

This casting out the unclean spirit is the very first miracle of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark. And it’s easy to get it exactly wrong. The main point of the story is not the miracle but rather the authority of Jesus’ teaching. The miracle is an illustration of the power of the teaching, it illustrates that what Jesus teaches has the power to cleanse what is unclean and to liberate those who are in bondage. The story is a liberation story, and it’s the teaching that liberates.

It’s easy to get this story wrong. It’s a mistake to assume the man in the unclean spirit was rabid or looked abnormal. I suspect the unclean spirit was not apparent to his compatriots. I mean the guy might have been unlikable, or maybe known for being contentious, or even one of those guys who might give you the creeps, but it was not with some demonic voice that he challenged Jesus. He regarded himself as reasonable. “Jesus, I see who you are, and I see where you’re going here, and you’re going to mess everything up and get the Romans mad and put us all in danger. You cannot win. It isn’t worth it. So leave us alone.” He thinks he’s making sense.

The man has an “unclean” spirit. The choice of words is important. Mark does not call it an “evil” spirit. If the spirit is evil effectively it is not so essentially. It is not a demon from hell. The Gospel of Mark is not a medieval document. We mistake the event to classify it as supernatural. Yes, it is beyond our rational analysis, but that only speaks to the limits of our mental capacity. The gospel regards the ordinary world as naturally spiritual. This unclean spirit belongs to the natural spirituality of the world. But the world has been disordered by human sin, and so the natural spirituality of the world has been corrupted, confused, out of place, and it infected him. Where it came from we are not told, nor where it went when Jesus cast it out. All we know is that it was no longer making the man unclean.

When the spaghetti sauce is in my plate it’s clean. But it’s unclean when it’s on my nice white shirt. The Brussel sprouts are lovely in their butter on the plate. But then you look away, and your little son who hates to eat them puts them in the pocket of his Sunday pants. Next Sunday morning when he puts them on again he will discover that his pants smell bad. And there’s not much he can do about it. He’ll have to surrender his pants to you to clean them. But he will feel guilty, and he may resist you helping him. He is resisting your authority, the very authority you need to use to help him out of his predicament. How often do we not resist our liberation.

Jesus is teaching with great authority. Who does he think he is to teach this way. He cites no standard reference books, he appeals to no other authority but his own. It’s as if he thinks he’s allowed to speak for God. This is both appealing and threatening, and the unclean spirit has the sensitivity to sense the threat of liberation and the threat of the authority of God. He calls him “the holy one of God.” He does not mean by this that he senses that Jesus is divine, though  Christians are quick to jump to that interpretation. At this point in the gospel it’s no more than that the  recognizes him as God’s anointed, as both a liberator and a threat, like King David.

[Note: I dropped out the following paragraph from my spoken version:]
Or like Joshua, the Old Testament general from whom Jesus gets his name. Joshua led the armies of Israel into the Galilee to liberate the land from bondage to the hideous idolatry of the Canaanites. That was unclean spirituality, and unhealthy too. I’m sure most of the Canaanites were decent people, just trying to live their lives, but they were in bondage. They had made gods and goddesses of the natural forces of the world, the forces of weather and fertility and sex. They feared those forces and they worshiped them and made themselves subservient to them, even to the sacrifice of their own children. Joshua cleared this all out and purged the corruption and cleansed the unclean spirituality. What Joshua accomplished must have looked like a reduction in spirituality, but now there was freedom for simple obedience to the life-giving laws of God. And so too the man in the synagogue was now liberated from the unclean spirit in order to be free to learn and live the teaching of Jesus. Joshua used the sword, and Jesus uses his teaching.

The teaching of Jesus appeals to your mind, to your understanding, to your proper use of reason, to learning and the love of learning. Don’t regard this story as anti-intellectual. The story implies the cultivation of a Christian intellect. You are called to learn the teaching of Jesus in all its richness and complexity. Your Christian intellectual pursuit is for you to receive God’s mission in the world and for you also to share in God’ mission in the world, for the saving of the world and the healing of the world.

Because the gospel story deals in spirituality, we tend to read it in terms of the supernatural. The bias of the modern mind is that the spiritual is somehow supernatural and therefore other than rational and intellectual and therefore contrary to it. The modern bias is that spirituality is anti-rational and often anti-intellectual. Many people are being drawn back to spirituality because of their frustration with the emptiness of modern rationality and the narrowness of the secular intellect. But the teaching of Jesus can answer this frustration and heal this fragmentation, because it offers a spirituality which is not an escape from reason, and a mysticism which is not anti-intellectual. The liberation in the teaching of Jesus is not an escape but a setting us free by setting things to right and bringing things back together and bringing rightful order to the world. The spirituality of Jesus is very much for your understanding and your reason and your mind. So the way to get at this wholesome and healing spirituality is by the open-hearted learning of his teaching.

His teaching attracts us and yet we resist it. We would rather help ourselves and liberate ourselves, but there are some powers and forces in the lives of each of us which no amount of learning or education or self-improvement or self-help can free us from. We are in their grip, and they are spiritual. We modern people don’t like to hear this, especially with our secular and scientific loyalties, but that’s part of what Jesus is teaching us. These spiritual powers can be economic or political, they can have the public form of ideology, or they can be collectively psychological, like the depression of an urban ghetto. Like certain neighborhoods of Brooklyn. Like that part of Baltimore in the TV show The Wire. In the fourth season one of those schoolboys says, “I know there is another world out there, but I don’t know how to get there.” Or the power can be like the power of addiction, which AA knows is spiritual. And we are powerless to get ourselves free.

But you don’t have to look for special miracles. The teaching of Jesus has that power. We can trust the power of his teaching. So if we let this story direct us in our Christian action in the world, it means that we can count on God using the teaching of Jesus to liberate and cleanse and put right those things in our lives which are disordered and disabling. The story directs us to rely on Jesus’ teaching for God to do the necessary miracles.

Everyone of us here is more or less unclean. For some of you it’s bad enough to be disabling. For some of you its from your early suffering. For some of you it’s from compromises that you feel you’ve made to get through life or to get something of seeming value in return. For some of you it’s your appetites, or your fears, or vows that you have made, commitments in your mind, conclusions you have drawn, or substitute freedoms that you treasure and you want to protect. And often we don’t know that we’re in the power of spirits more powerful than us until we are made uncomfortable by the very teaching of Jesus which we first welcomed. But still you want to welcome it, and that’s why you are here.

The teaching of Jesus is enough to give you get you clean and make you free. Not that it’s a magic pill. It’s teaching. It takes learning and reflection and it is best done by learning it in a group. This story takes place within the community of a synagogue. Nobody likes to be challenged in a group or healed in a group, but the teaching of Jesus is always in the context of community.  Because the goal of the teaching is love. You want to be clean for your neighbor. And you want to be clean for God. Which is a little threatening, but also compelling, because even when you are unclean, God loves you.

Copyright © 2012 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

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