Binding the Strong Man
Rev. Douglas Taylor
June 18, 2017
Throughout the first several chapters of Mark’s gospel, Jesus is wandering around the countryside doing a few particular things. He is gathering disciples. He is healing the sick. And he is casting out demons. Later he starts telling parables and teaching; later he goes to Jerusalem, holds his last supper, is arrested, is killed, and his tomb is found empty. But the early part of Mark’s gospel shows Jesus wandering the countryside healing and casting our demons.
I grew up in a Humanist Unitarian Universalist congregation. I learned a very rational and thoughtful version of faith and belief. I am not Christian, but I do appreciate the wisdom found in the words and deeds of Jesus. I suspect the majority of Unitarian Universalists, like me, appreciate the ethical teachings and spiritual wisdom of Jesus. The Sermon on the Mount with the beatitudes has some of our favorite passages from Jesus. “Blessed are you who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for you will be filled.” (Mt 5:6) “Love your enemies.” (Mt 5:44) “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” (Mt 5:7) “Judge not, lest ye be judged.” (Mt 7:1) “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” (7:12) It is great stuff!
As some of you know from previous sermons you have heard me preach, in my adult years I have circled back to an appreciation of the healing and miracle stories in the gospels – not because I believe they are historical or factual. Rather because I find wisdom and hidden lessons in those passages. All those stories about Jesus walking on water, healing the blind, blessing and forgiving people – I have grown to love those stories as well. The exorcisms too, although they have been a little harder for me.
Did Jesus really cast out demons? In Unitarian Universalist circles, we endeavor to reject literal interpretations of scripture. When I read about Jesus performing an exorcism, commanding a demon to leave a person, I avoid literalist questions. A literalist interpretation would say “Yes – that account is factual, historical, and indeed proof of Jesus’ divine mission.” To say “No – there are no demons, the account is made-up and untrue,” is also a literal interpretation. The question, “Did Jesus really cast out demons?” asks for a literal interpretation – Yes or No. From my perspective, it is the wrong question and I refuse to answer it.
I look for mythic interpretations rather than literal interpretations. I read them like I read the parables. When Jesus talked about Sower or the Talents, it is a thin interpretation to think those stories are only about farming and money management. Although, such interpretations can still serve, it’s just that there is so much more to them if you are open to hearing them as parables, as metaphors with second and even third meanings to them. So I hear the healings, miracles, and exorcisms like parables – what are the second and third messages hidden in the stories.
There are two levels of mythic or metaphoric interpretation I look for. I read for the personal level – what are the spiritual or moral lessons for me in this passage? And I read for the communal level – what are the ethical and political lessons for us in this passage?
I have come to the opinion that looking at the exorcisms is worth my time, our time, if only because they are a fairly common event in the gospel. In Mark’s gospel there are three detailed accounts of Jesus commanding ‘unclean spirits’ or demons to leave a person. (1:23-28; 5:1-20; 9:14-29) But a few times we read: “And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons” (1:34) “And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.” (1:39) The image painted of Jesus not sitting quietly extolling virtues before an enthralled crowd, but of a man hurrying from place to place with power in his hands – touching people, speaking quietly and personally to folks, moving through crowds with his eyes searching for people in need.
Mark 1:21-28 (NRSV)
21 They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22 They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23 Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24 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.” 25 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” 26 And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27 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.” 28 At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.
A personal interpretation of any of the exorcisms can easily focus on topics like addiction or some aspects of mental health. People talk about wrestling with their personal demons. In this way, the demon possession symbolizes something else, some inner struggle with our past, with an addiction, with our body image or self-worth even. In Chapter 5 of Mark, Jesus meets up with the Gerasene Demoniac (5:1-20). Jesus says, “What is your name,” and the man says “My name is Legion; for we are many.” What a powerful metaphor! I can’t figure out who I really am because it feels like there are dozens of me inside me and not all of them are attractive.
And here comes Jesus, or perhaps even Jesus in the story symbolizes something else – some power or grace – something external to the struggle that breaks the cycle. In this personalized parallel, the solution to the struggle comes from beyond our own control or power.
The basic model of Alcoholics Anonymous talks about the addiction in this exact parallel manor. Step one of the 12-step program is “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.” And step two is “We came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” The alcoholism is like a demon possessing us, but there is something else more powerful that can help us to cast it out.
It is profitable to read passages in the gospels with an eye toward where you personally fit in the story. Am I like the father in that parable or like the son? Does the widow in that story reflect my own struggle? In the gospels, Jesus suggests we can do exactly this with the parables – see ourselves in parallel to the characters in the story. I say we can do this with the healings and exorcisms, not just the parables.
And, that is not the only way we can read a mythic interpretation. Finding my own personal connection is one thing. But what about a communal reading? What about a political reading?
The exorcism in Capernaum I read earlier is recorded early in Mark’s gospel – chapter one. It is Jesus’ first ‘public’ action. Mark’s version begins with Jesus being baptized by John. He is then tempted in the wilderness for forty days, after which he returns to Galilee and calls Simon Peter and his brother Andrew to be disciples. Then he goes to the synagogue on the Sabbath and starts teaching.
Think about what that would have been like. Jesus is not a scribe, he is not ordained, he was not called by the community – he just walked in one day, one Sabbath day, and started proclaiming his message about God’s Kingdom.
In a political reading, this context is important. Jesus’ ministry was a disruption and a challenge to the corrupt leaders of his day – not just to the occupying army of the Roman Empire but also to the religious leaders who sold out their own people and religion by colluding with the empire. We usually notice this passage for the exorcism, but this act of teaching in the synagogue is an act of civil disobedience! It is political theater, non-violent protest and direct action!
What if we read exorcisms as communal political events, as acts of liberation? With the personal mythic interpretation I suggested the demon symbolized a personal struggle, such as addiction. With a communal mythic interpretation I suggest the demon symbolizes a communal struggle, such as oppression: the people caught under the yoke of imperial rule and their religion coopted by corrupt leaders in the pocket of Caesar. I say it fits. The literal stories of exorcism are acts of liberation. It seems a fairly apt parallel to talk about communal exorcism, freedom for the oppressed people.
In 1988, Ched Myers wrote a textbook about how to read the gospel of Mark with a political interpretation. He titled it Binding the Strong Man after phrase in the passage we used this morning as our first reading. In explaining his mission, in what he is doing with these exorcisms, Jesus says, “no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.” (Mark 3:27) It is interesting that Mark’s Jesus used a ‘breaking and entering’ metaphor, an image of ‘plundering,’ to legitimize his actions.
And here comes Jesus, liberating the poor and disenfranchised from bondage, rebuking the demons, commanding them to leave – and they do because he knows their names! For such is the power of naming, at least in mythic experience of living. What might their names be today? What are the names of the demons of oppression today?
50 years ago, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King spoke at Riverside Church on the topic of the Vietnam War and gave name to what he called the “triplets,” the triple threat against our society today: militarization, poverty, and racism. He named them as forces leading us away from our goal of Beloved Community, as forces leading us into chaos.
Our society has certainly made progress over the past 50 years, but the ‘triplets’ still possess us, still lure us away into chaos today. We don’t need a Roman Emperor to experience imperial domination. The players and politicians change, but the demons remain. Power and wealth are centralized. Local police departments are outfitting themselves with military grade equipment to be used against our own citizens. Poverty in our country continues to decline as the decades go by, but alarmingly the gap between the rich and poor expands. And all our strides against racism have had an impact yet we continue to struggle.
But what if? What if we all were exorcists? What would we be doing? In the gospel story, Jesus empowered his disciples to rebuke demons and cast them out. If we read this mythically from a political interpretation, what were the disciples empowered to do?
Gandhi recognized a solution, echoing through the ages. He said,
[the poor] cannot successfully fight [the big powers] with their own weapons. After all, you cannot go beyond the atom bomb. Unless we have a new way of fighting imperialism of all brands in place of the outworn one of violent revolution, there is no hope for the oppressed [1948, 11:8].
But there is hope. Gandhian nonviolence as a tool of direct action has been effective far more often that the most people realize. It is a form of exorcism, of rebuke against the demons. Nonviolent direct action is a communal power.
Jesus walked into the synagogue in Capernaum and began teaching. He rebuked the challenge that came and continued on his way. This story of the exorcism in Capernaum was his first of several public direct actions campaigns designed to resist the imperial rule of his day. The lesson for us is to locate ourselves in today’s imperial scenario – to see it for what it is on that mythic level. To rally our own power to resist chaos and call in Kingdom of God – the Beloved Community – using the best and most effective power we have at our disposal.
Add your voice to chorus to resistance, heeding the hidden lessons revealed in these stories of exorcism. Become exorcists yourselves. Name the demons you know, personal or communal; name them and rebuke them and help us bring in the beloved community for all.
In a world without end,
May it be so.