Rebuking Our Unclean Spirits
They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, ‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.’ But Jesus rebuked him, saying, ‘Be silent, and come out of him!’ And the unclean spirit, throwing him into convulsions and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, ‘What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.’ At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.
I have to admit, I’ve never really been a fan of the language of things being “unclean,” which we hear in our scripture passage for this morning. The word has been used too often in the past as a weapon—calling people unclean because of who they love, where they come from, how they worship, or because they suffer from mental or physical health challenges. Too often in the history of the church, the word “unclean” has been used to keep certain people marginalized and to consolidate power in the hands of a privileged few. In Jesus’ day, certainly, it was a method of marginalization. People labeled “unclean” were not supposed to go inside the temple. They were often ostracized from their families and their communities. It was an early method of making someone into an “other”— a tool of marginalization that we still use to this day. So, no, I don’t like the language of things being labeled unclean. However, this morning’s text forces to us reckon with the word, as Jesus confronts an “unclean spirit” in a man in the synagogue.
Now there’s a lot we don’t know about the man in question. What was he doing, that the “unclean spirit” in him was so apparent? Was he being disruptive? Was he shouting? Was he being violent or aggressive? We don’t really know. The only thing we do know is that when confronted by Christ, the unclean spirit is immediately vanquished. Whatever form it took, when it encountered Christ, its power was dissolved. And that’s what really stands out to me in this story— that when confronted by the love, light and truth of Christ, all of our demons and so-called ‘unclean spirits’ are essentially rendered powerless. Whether they are are literal or metaphorical, personal or collective, old or new— the power that can take the wind out of their sails is the power of God’s love made flesh. Having an encounter with Divine love has the capacity to vanquish our demons and cleanse our spirits once and for all.
Now when it comes to our own personal “unclean spirits” that we wrestle with, there are many, and they are varied. Maybe for some it’s addiction. Maybe for others its depression or anxiety or some other mental health challenge. Maybe some of us struggle with anger or resentment, grief or trauma. I can’t claim to know what others are wrestling with, though I can say, and I feel I must say here, that no matter what each of us struggles with, that doesn’t make us “unclean” or unworthy in the eyes of God. After all, we were all created by God and called good. And as the messenger of God said to Peter in his vision on the rooftop in the Acts of the Apostles— “you shall not call unclean that which God has made clean.” A person cannot be unclean. A person can, however, be wrestling with strong forces— forces that are not necessarily what God intends for us. I think that’s an important distinction to make. And that’s what I think is happening with the man in this morning’s story from the gospel of Mark. He is wrestling with some kind of demon— again, it could be literal or metaphorical, mental or physical, emotional or spiritual. But in any case, that doesn’t make the man bad or unworthy. It doesn’t make him evil. It just makes him human— because we all have our stuff. Jesus understands this, and so when he encounters the man, he doesn’t ignore him or look the other way. He doesn’t shame the man or ostracize him. Rather, Jesus sees the man as the precious child of God that he is and he loves him. And it is the force of that love that casts out the unclean spirit.
So what does this mean for us in our world today? I think, first of all, it means that we should have compassion for all people, knowing that everyone is wrestling with something, knowing that we are all contending with powerful forces, some of which are not healthy, and we all need the love and compassion of others to overcome those obstacles. We all need each other to be the love of God made flesh for us, to rebuke and drive out the unclean spirits and lead us towards healing and wholeness. We need to see each other as beloved and worthy, even when, and maybe even especially when, we see that others are struggling with forces that are sometimes beyond their ability to control.
Similarly, just as we cannot label individuals as bad, evil, or unworthy, we also cannot label entire groups of people as bad or unclean, heathens or infidels. We can see, perhaps, that there are times when certain collective groups of people or societies are wrestling with something— racism, perhaps—or xenophobia, nationalism, or even collective national trauma that turns into bitterness and hate. But again, that doesn’t make that group of people unclean, bad or evil. It just makes them human, and we should all know enough about our own society to know that it is possible to overcome such collective spirits even as it is sometimes just as easy to fall back into them. But we don’t overcome these collective demons by shaming or othering each other. We overcome these collective “unclean spirits” by loving and supporting each other.
Now sometimes, that can mean naming the unclean spirits out loud, so that we, like Jesus, can rebuke them. But naming the unclean spirit so that it can be exorcized is not the same as shaming or marginalizing the person, or persons, that are contending with it. Recognizing and naming the demons we struggle with is not to give into their power or submit to their influence, rather, naming our demons out loud does the opposite— it takes their power away and diminishes their hold on us. And so if I say, for example, that one of our collective “unclean spirits” in America is racism, that doesn’t mean I’m saying America is bad, or that all people in America are racists, or that America is an inherently racist or evil country. I’m saying it’s something we wrestle with, and it’s something that gets in our way of becoming all that we are called to be as a nation. But if we name it— if we recognize it and call it out by name, exposing it to love and the light of day, it’s power is diminished and we can begin to work our way towards healing reconciliation. As the author Jesmyn Ward writes: “There is power in naming racism for what it is, in shining a bright light on it, brighter than any torch or flashlight. A thing as simple as naming it allows us to root it out of the darkness and hushed conversation where it likes to breed.” What greater light is there than the light of the love of Christ? What greater power could there be to rebuke the unclean spirits of our age?
Finally, just as we are called to love others and support them as they wrestle with their own unclean spirits, we can also choose to love ourselves as we wrestle with our own. Just because we are wrestling with something that doesn’t make us bad or unworthy of love. We can be confident that God loves us unconditionally, no matter what we are struggling with. I think sometimes, it’s a lot easier to love and support others as they wrestle with their stuff than it is to love and care for ourselves. Many of us have a tendency to be a lot harder on ourselves than we are on others. We tend to shame ourselves more easily, thinking there must be something wrong with us if we can’t seem to get past that addiction, or those mental health struggles, or the effects of some past trauma. But we can be sure that God does not see us as unworthy or shameful. We can be sure exactly because of stories like the one we heard this morning. We can be sure that Christ sees us and loves us regardless of whatever it is that we struggle with. And so we can open ourselves up to that love, just as we might share it with others. We can name our struggle before God—being honest with ourselves and with God without judgement or shame— and we can open our hearts so that God’s spirit of love can enter in. And this doesn’t necessarily mean that whatever we struggle with will just disappear. But maybe it can begin to take some of its power away. Maybe it can help dispel the shame and guilt that we feel leaving more room for love and the light of Christ to grow inside of us.
And so let us not be afraid to name and rebuke the unclean spirits that we wrestle with. Let us not be afraid of exposing them to the light of day because ultimately, that will help to take their power away. And let us be more gracious and loving towards others, knowing that we are all contending with something, but that God has claimed us all as God’s beloved and God has called all of us good, and worthy, and clean. May it ever be so, Amen.