Casting Out What Casts Out – January 31

A sermon based on Mark 1:21-28
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on January 31, 2021
by Rev. Scott Elliott

Stories like the one Laura just read with Jesus’ performing what sounds like a supernatural healing and exorcism give a lot of us modern folk trouble. I’ve mention this before, we generally hear these types of stories as hard to believe – if not outright unbelievable. I suspect that at best we are skeptical of claims that separate demonic spirit beings exist, and even more skeptical that they can inhabit humans.
In this church it is okay to have questions and doubts and to not turn our thinking off when we consider Bible stories or church dogma or tradition, for that matter. We should think critically, that is analyze and evaluate evidence in light of facts, experience, science, and reason. As critical thinkers raised in the Age of Reason we tend to approach these stories about Jesus thinking that there are basically three ways to deal with them. One is to decide they defy reason and must be rejected outright as unbelievable. Another is to just go ahead and believe they are literally true– even if they seem unbelievable. The third choice is to consider the stories as having metaphoric truths we can uncover and value. Christians tend to choose among those three choices.
No one has to agree with my choices, but as you probably know I often take the third option, understanding the unclean spirits as those things that trouble the culture. In Bible stories about Jesus, we hear him challenge things that oppress others. Jesus just shuts them down and takes them out of the gathered. There’s truth and holiness to that metaphoric approach. And we could apply it to “isms” of our day, things like racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism and what I am going to call religion-ism. 1
While the three choices I mentioned are what most modern folks pick from –and like I said I tend to take the third option– there is another choice, a fourth option with the stories about Jesus’ healing and exorcism miracles. It’s a choice historians tend to take and it can, I think, be reconciled with some of the other choices. It requires critical thinking that does not just look on the surface at the words in the Bible, but digs deep to find out what they meant when they were written in the context of Jesus and Mark’s cultural. The idea is that finding the meaning in the original context can give meaning to us now– truths that are not necessarily supernatural or solely metaphor.
We have to start this approach by realizing what it is that tends to trip us up in our own context. Hearing that Jesus encountered someone with an “unclean spirit,” and healed him with an exorcism trips us up because most of us understandably take a modern view and doubt or reject separate demonic spirits exist, let alone can be exorcized from a body. What we need to do is consider whether meanings in our context can line up with the meanings in Jesus and Mark’s context. This fourth option chooses to try and understand those differences, and consider whether exorcism stories have a rational basis and even believable meanings. Most of you have heard me preach before that monotheism means there are not separate little deities like demons, so before anyone thinks I’ve changed my mind stay with me. I’m suggesting we change our perspective not abandon reasoning.
So, let’s dive into this a bit: As rule we tend to hear “healing” as the sustained and complete cure of a bodily or mental ailment; and we tend to hear “exorcism” as the removal of a separate spiritual entity from a human being. 2 John Dominic Crossan, a preeminent Jesus scholar and historian suggests we set those meanings aside and hear the words in the context of First Century Palestine. He points out that with respect to healing, we need to understand there is a
“dichotomy between two aspects of sickness: disease and illness. Disease refers to a malfunctioning of biological and/or psychological processes, while the term illness refers to the psychological experience and meaning of perceived disease” end (Birth, 294, quoting Kleinman).
Anthropologists suggest there’s a difference between curing a disease and healing an illness (Ibid.). Diseases cause abnormalities in biological functions and are best cured by medical practitioners. (Ibid.). Healing, on the other hand, addresses what Crossan calls the “psychosocial experience and meaning of the perceived disease” (Crossan, Jesus, 81). In other words, those considered diseased face social and personal consequences which are not biological. Examples today include how alcoholism, drug addiction and other mental health issues very often result in those afflicted being shunned or diminished in value to the culture, to their community and even to themselves. In Jesus’ day most famously leprosy was included, but apparently so were a variety of perceived mental disabilities, as well as other physical disabilities.
In Jesus’ culture people believed in spirits and spirit possession– AND that spirits caused diseases. Spirit-possessed people were treated as unclean outcasts in the culture (Ibid.). That’s why we hear the demons referred to as unclean spirits in the lesson. Sadly, the idea of demonic possession laid the blame on the person afflicted. It was thought they must’ve done something wrong (Jesus, 86). The man in our story is such a person, an unhealthy outcast considered spirit possessed.
In cultures that believe in spirit possession there are folks who can cast them out, shamans. Casting the spirit out lets the cast-out person back into the community. The shunning ends. The diminished value ends.
Taking all this into consideration, Jesus need not be understood as providing supernatural cures of biological ailments, but loving healings of the social and the psychological wounds of being cast away. We know Jesus takes down hurdles of oppression that limit access to well-being in all quarters of the realm. Exorcism was a way to do this in the First Century.
And exorcisms in Palestine at the time were connected to more than the person healed. There was also “in the first-century mind . . . a connection between demonic possession and colonial oppression” (Jesus, 89). See, Rome was understood to have also been a cause of the spirit possessions. Their hostile occupation of the land, brought hostile occupation of people. Casting out demons was a slam at Rome, and seen as a challenge to it . Which is why under Roman law it was a capital offense to perform exorcisms. We know Jesus challenged Rome in others ways, we also know by all accounts Jesus performed exorcisms. The most famous is probably the Legion and Swine exorcism in Mark 5. We can hear Rome’s at fault and Jesus challenging Rome in that story. “Legion” was the unit name for Rome’s occupying troops and it is the demon’s name– and Jesus humorously casts Legion into unclean pigs who go back to where the Legions came from the sea (Ibid., Jesus, 90). That’s a provocative story and it clearly mocks and challenges Rome. It also heals the one possessed.
Jesus’ healing and exorcisms bring in the Empire of God where no one is an unclean outcast – where no hurdles to love and community exist. In today’s story – Jesus’ first miracle and also his first exorcism– the demons that caused the culture to shun a man are not just silenced, but removed. While that has a metaphor edge like the third choice I mentioned, its different in that the culture literally thought spirits caused the disease and Jesus literally removed the oppressive spirits. Jesus just shuts them down and takes them out. He ends the outcast status of those afflicted with cultural stigma. That’s one of the things he does for the well-being of others.
We could choose to do that too. The tool in Jesus’ day was exorcism. The tool in our day includes choosing to shut them down and remove condemnation of people from our presence. And note that this would literally (not just metaphorically) stop oppressions, like the “isms” of our day, racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism and religion-ism. The only thing Jesus has to do with the spirit of such things is rebuke, silence and get rid of them. As the Body of Christ in the world today we can and we should also rebuke, silence and get rid of such oppressive spirits. It does not take a supernatural miracle. It takes love by us toward those treated as the least among us I our culture. May we love like Jesus did and cast away oppressive spirits. AMEN.

1. The podcast Pulpit Fiction discussed this option at length when it addressed today’s Lectionary text the week of January 17th . Some of my wording in this section of the sermon was influenced by the discussion, particularly Rev. Eric Fistler’s comments.
2. Much of this information on disease and exorcism come from notes relating to a 2005 Bible Studies course I took from Dr. Stephan Patterson at Eden Theological Seminary. The books I parenthetically refer to in the text of this sermon are both by John Dominic Crossan, The Birth of Christianity (“Birth”) and The History of Jesus (“Jesus”). These two books are extensive (and huge) and exceptionally well researched.