Herb Montgomery | December 4, 2020
Mark’s Jesus narrative offers a Jesus who has come not to destroy us or who we are but to liberate us from the self-hatred and the internalized low self-estimation our communities of origin have given us because of who we are. This Jesus has come to liberate us from our own captivity to believing that we are “less than” others simply because we may be different from those at the top of the privilege structures in our society.
Few stories have historically been scarier to the human psyche than stories of possession. Yet Mark’s author places this story at the beginning of this Jesus narrative for a reason:
“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, convulsing him 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.” (Mark 1:21-28)
This story takes place in the most sacred boundaries of time and space in Jesus’ community. It’s a story about the social phenomenon that the gospels refer to as the way of sacrifice.
As we’ve discussed over the past few weeks, communities built on exclusivity depend on their agreeing who to exclude from their society. They need a “sacrifice,” someone to expel out of their borders for society to function properly, and they find unity in being against what they define as “other.” Finding unity in vilifying someone gives communities like this their life. They depend on the existence of a “demoniac.”
We lose so much today if we throw out the stories of demoniacs and exorcisms in the Jesus narratives simply because we cannot find a naturalist explanation for them. If we look for their sociopolitical themes, though, demoniac stories help us understand human societies and they should not be dismissed too quickly. One possible interpretation of the demoniac stories in the gospels is to understand them as drawing attention to those whom the community has chosen to expel: the scapegoats, the sacrificed, the expelled victims who have internalized their community’s hatred as deserved. They have come to agree with the community that they should be driven outside the camp, and they become “possessed” by how their community estimates them.
Let’s look at each piece of the story:
The demoniac encounters Jesus.
The demoniac refers to Jesus as the “Holy One of God.” This is a political title Mark uses purposefully, and it’s a title that King David used for himself (Psalm 4:3; Psalm 15:10). It was also the title given to Aaron (Psalm 106:16, LXX).
The demoniac assumes Jesus has come to execute the social phenomenon of sacrificial destruction: “Have you come to destroy us?”
In this interpretation, demoniacs symbolize those who have internalized self-hatred from their community. Mark’s demoniac sees Jesus as the “holy one” who has come to carry out the expulsion he “deserved”—to destroy rather than liberate.
But Jesus’ role in this story is not to destroy lives but to liberate, heal, and restore. Jesus rejects the title given to him because he’s not the figurehead of this social phenomenon of exclusion. He represents something much different.
Jesus had come not to sacrifice scapegoats but to do away with the entire system of basing societies on sacrificing/scapegoating those considered to be “other.” He desired “mercy not sacrifice”: he had come to destroy the very system that creates demoniacs.
Two phrases in our story suggest the author’s point:
“They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.”
“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.’”
Ched Myers gives insight into this contrast between those in authority within Jesus’ community and Jesus in his insightful volume, Say to This Mountain:
“The essential conflict is thus defined as the contest over authority between Jesus and the scribal establishment, a contest which will be central to the entire story. Sandwiched in between is an ‘unclean spirit’ who ‘protests” Jesus’ presence: ‘Why do you meddle with us?’ (1:23f; see Judges 11:12; 1 Kings 17:18). However, the demon’s defiance quickly turns to fear: ‘Have you come to destroy us?’ Who is the ‘we’ on whose behalf the demon speaks? The function of Mark’s framing device suggests that the demon’s voice represents the voice of the scribal class whose ‘space’ Jesus is invading. The synagogue on the Sabbath is scribal turf, where scribes exercise the authority to teach Torah. This ‘spirit’ personifies scribal power, which holds sway over the hearts and minds of the people. Only after breaking the influence of this spirit is Jesus free to begin his compassionate ministry to the masses (1:29ff). To interpret this exorcism solely as the ‘curing of an epileptic’ is to miss its profound political impact. In contrast to Hellenistic literature, in which miracle-workers normally function to maintain the status quo, gospel healings challenge the ordering of power. Because Jesus seeks the root causes of why people are marginalized, there is no case of healing and exorcism in Mark that does not also raise a larger question of social oppression.” (Ched Myers, Say to This Mountain: Mark’s Story of Discipleship, p. 14)
With his healing act, Jesus is contradicting the community’s evaluation of their “othered” one. This same one has internalized their community’s evaluation and is thus “possessed” by the community’s hatred transformed into self-hatred. Jesus emerges in the stories to contradict the community’s “othering” and to stand in contrast with those in positions of authority within this system of “othering.”
Mark’s author wants us to notice the contrast between Jesus and those in places of authority who are responsible for the exclusionary system the community is founded on.
When Jesus sought to liberate the demoniac from being possessed by the community’s evaluation of them, all present begin to contrast Jesus’ authority with the scribes’ authority. Jesus showed everyone that there is another way for human societies to form and function. This is Jesus’s “new teaching.”
What does this have to do with us today?
Again, in this interpretation, demoniacs in Mark’s Jesus story designate not only those whom the community has “cast out” or driven off but also those who have adopted the community’s image of them as their own self-image, thereby producing within themselves a self-destructive self-hatred.
As we see in this story, internalized self-hatred can cause an outcast to view those who attempt to liberate them from their self-hatred as “the enemy.” The man in this story viewed Jesus as an antagonist and the liberation from internalized self-hatred that Jesus offered as adversarial.
I don’t know how many times I have witnessed this:
- People of a different race or from a different place than the majority internalizing and believing that they are “less than” because they are the minority within a larger group
- Women internalizing and genuinely believing they are “less than” men
- Those of less economic status believing they are “less than” those who possess more wealth
- Those who possess less formal or academic training than others while being intelligent and open-minded still believing they are “less than” others who are more formally educated yet domesticated by the status quo
- Transgender people believing they are “less than” others because the world is built for and by cisgender people
- LGBTQ people being afraid to “come out” even to themselves because of hatred bestowed on them by their community of origin, or teachings that say they are “less than,” evil, or even “possessed”
Mark’s Jesus narrative offers a Jesus who has come not to destroy us or who we are but to liberate us from the self-hatred and the internalized low self-estimation our communities of origin have given us because of who we are.
This Jesus has come to liberate us from our own captivity to believing that we are “less than” others simply because we may be different from those at the top of the privilege structures in our society.
The Jesus story is whispering to us that:
- We were all made in the image of God.
- We are all children of the same Divine Parents.
- There is room at the Table for us all.
- There is a place in Jesus’s new world for us all.
The person Jesus healed that day was restored to the community instead of cast out, and this restoration pushed the community into reassessment. When Jesus heals, the community and its way of living cannot stay unchanged. No, the man’s restoration causes the community to reevaluate and consider the contrast between Jesus’ inclusion and exclusion from those in power in their community. Not only was the individual liberated but the congregation was too.
Maybe the world can operate by continuing to find people to expel. But I don’t want to live in a world like that. Instead of driving the demoniac he met away, Jesus delivered him from self-hatred, restored him to his rightful place, and also created change within the community that had sought to expel him in the first place.
Jesus announced that a different iteration of our world was possible!
And this was just the beginning of Mark’s stories about Jesus.
We at RHM are continuing to ask all HeartGroups not to meet together physically at this time. Please stay virtually connected and practice physical distancing. When you do go out, please keep a six-foot distance between you and others, wear a mask, and continue to wash your hands to stop the spread of the virus.
This is also a time where we can practice the resource-sharing and mutual aid found in the gospels. Make sure the others in your group have what they need. This is a time to work together and prioritize protecting those most vulnerable among us.
1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.
2. Share a story of where you have witnessed a community being challenged by the inclusion of those they once excluded. Did the community change? Did the community reject the change and continue excluding?
3. What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?
Thanks for checking in with us, today.
Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.
I love each of you dearly,
I’ll see you next week