Our passage today is Mark’s first report of Jesus exerting his authority both in words and actions. Jesus went to the synagogue on the Sabbath and taught. But he taught in an unexpected way … a way not as the scribes taught. The scribes were expects on the religious law that Jewish folk were expected to follow. They were lawyers of sort and would speak in quite amount of detail as to what was the correct way to fulfill the law. And they would cite famous scribes before them as their references for their conclusions. The authority of their conclusions did not come from the scribe who was speaking but from his famous and respected predecessors.
But Jesus did not teach in this manner. He taught with his own authority apparently without any reference to past experts. “They” presumably the men at the synagogue who probably included scribes, were astounded at his teaching. Mark leaves out two interesting bits of information: Just what did Jesus teach? And were the listeners astounded to anger or astounded to amazement? We don’t know which, although as we progress through the Gospels, we can suspect that Jesus taught through parables much of what we read in Matthew and Luke. We can also suspect that the congregation was mixed … some would be angry at him for teaching radical love and inclusiveness while others would rejoice in his teachings.
But more dramatic was what happened just after the service. A man with an unclean spirit, i.e. with a demon, approached Jesus. The man – or the demon – challenged Jesus. The demon knows who Jesus is. It knows Jesus is the Messiah. But Jesus exorcised the demon forcing the demon out of the man and to flee. Again the congregation was amazed. He not only preached with authority, Jesus exercised authority over even the demons.
We need to understand that folks in antiquity took the notions of demons very seriously. They believed that demons were for real, that they were dangerously more powerful than humans, but less so than God. They feared them and saw their work in all sorts of ailments and conditions. Jesus, by expelling the demon, proved he was more powerful than the demon and therefore more powerful than humans.
But so what? Demons don’t willing exist. The ancients were superstitions. And indeed, our ancestors were superstitions and believed in witches and demons right up to colonial days. So for us Jesus casting out demons isn’t as impressive … just because we won’t see the need in our day and age. Or will we?
The New Testament people were by and large pre-scientific. They had only rudimentary understanding of medicine and health. So it would be not unexpected if a person who was bipolar, for example, swinging radically through highs and lows was perceived as being processed by a demon. When someone suffers from bipolar condition, he can be quite reckless in his up times and quite suicidal in his down times. If you don’t understand the medical science behind this condition, explaining as having a demon makes sense: a demon is trying to destroy the person – that’s what demons do.
Today, of course, we know better and wouldn’t expect a wandering prophet or even the Messiah to cure someone of this condition. We expect, rightly so, that various medical and psychosocial procedures will stabilize the person and allow them to lead a fairly normal productive life.
But there are other conditions that are just as demonic. What about someone who as succumbed to PTSD? The source of this is not medical. The source is trauma, deep and sustained trauma. A person suffering from PTSD can radically change from a functioning human being to an angry fearful person who is a danger to herself and to other people. The veteran who killed Ranger Anderson in Colorado probably was suffering from PTSD … he’s dead so we can’t be sure, but I’ll speculate that he felt driven despite himself; that his trauma was so severe that he was no longer in control of his life; that indeed he was ruled by a demonic power … the power of destruction that we call PTSD. It is this understanding of demons – or demonic power – that would make since that the Messiah could exorcise from an individual.
I was reading in the DREW magazine (Winter 2012) about the Rev. Walt Everett and Mike Carlucci both trapped in demonic powers. On July 26, 1987 Rev. Everett was in Virginia with members of his Connecticut church building for Habitat for Humanity. Just as he sat down for breakfast at the hotel they were staying he received a message to call home. It was an emergency.
When he called home, his younger son Wayne picked up the phone and reported the terrible news. His older son Scott had been murdered. Earlier that morning in an apartment building Scott who was 24 years old had been shot point blank by Mike Carlucci, a 27 year old drug dealer.
Scott had struggled with alcoholism, but was now sober and had put his life back together. He had a steady work and had moved into the apartment two years before. That night he had gone out with friends and when he returned he discovered his apartment had been burglarized. After his friends calmed him down, he walked them to their car leaving his keys behind. When he returned to the apartment building he discovered the door was locked. He knocked on the door hoping someone would open it for him.
In the meantime another tenant discovered her apartment had been robbed and was screaming in the hall. Mike lived across the hall and came out to see what was going on. He was stoned on cocaine and had been drinking. Seeing the screaming woman he went back to his apartment to get his .38 handgun. He heard someone pounding on the outside door. When he opened it, he did not recognize Scott. Wielding his gun, he told him to leave. Then for no good reason that even Mike himself could not understand, he shot and killed Scott.
Scott’s father, Walt’s life spiraled down out of control for the next eleven months. He felt despair, rage, and depression. His marriage disintegrated. He prayed to God to take him out of this dark night of the soul. But he heard no response. He started attending a support group for family members of murder victims. At one session, one of the participants said that anyone who committed murder “should be taken out and shot immediately.” He learned that her son had been killed 14 years ago. He wondered if this was going to be his life for now on.
After 11 months, Mike was tried. Walt attended his sentencing. He spoke at the sentencing but didn’t remember what he said. What he did remember was Mike’s apology that he wished he hadn’t killed Scott and could bring him back. For most parents those would have been empty words. For Walt it was like God said, “I’ve been asking you to wait. This is what I’ve been asking you to wait for.”
Two weeks later on the anniversary of his son’s murder, he sat down and wrote a three page letter to Mike. He reported the terrible suffering that Scott’s murder had inflicted on his family. Yet he thanked Mike for his apology. He then wrote that he realized he could not go on with his life unless he accepted that apology. And he the letter he said that he forgave Mike.
Later Walt would report that his decision to forgive Mike was not meant to ease the guilt that weighed on Mike’s soul. It was more selfish than that. He did it to save his own life.
Mike received the letter a few days later. He was angered by it and vented on his prison drug counselor. The counselor suggested he read it. He wouldn’t and he stormed out of the office leaving the letter behind. When he returned to his counselor’s office he saw the letter was unopened. He asked the counselor to read it. She did and suggested that he needed to read it. He did read it and sent a response to Walt. He wrote Walt that his letter gave him peace of mind and allowed him to sleep easier at night. At the end he again apologized.
After that the two men exchanged letters. Several months later Walt received a letter from Mike asking if Walt could come visit him. After much soul-searching, Walt agreed to visit. At the end of their visit, they embraced. Over the next two years, they continued to correspond and visit. Walt came to believe that Mike was a changed man, transformed from the drug-addict street thug. Walt viewed this transformation as the work of God.
When Mike’s dad died he received a furlough from prison to go to the funeral. He asked Walt to preach the funeral sermon and Walt did so.
Now Mike was given only 10 years in prison with the possibility of parole in 5 years. Walt was astounded that someone who had murdered would receive such a light sentence. Yet part way into his first 5 years Mike told him that he was going to ask the state parole board to grant him an early release. Then Mike asked Walt to testify for him at the parole meeting and Walt agreed. Mike was released early and he credits Walt’s testimony for that early release.
Mike had been possessed of a demonic force. Like far too many men and women he had succumbed to a drug addition. A demonic force is a force in you but is not of you. It’s like a life separate from you but in you and driving you irresistibly. You know you are driven, but you do not have the will or faith to cast it out. No matter that you know what you are doing is evil, you are driven to do it anyway. Mike himself admitted that he didn’t understand why he shot Scott, Walt’s son.
Similarly, Walt was also succumbing to a demonic force of his anger, despair and loss. His loss drove him away from his marriage and left him bereft of life’s joy and hope. He knew his loss was driving him and he sought somehow to be rid of this driving force. He, however, unlike Mike had the faith in God to take the critical step of breaking this demonic force and become free of it by forgiving Mike.
In Matthew 18:21-22, Peter asks Jesus how many times should he forgive someone. He suggested 7 times. Jesus said, no, but to forgive 70 times 7 which is to say without limit. Jesus knew that forgiveness defies the demonic power of vengeance and loss and hate, and frees the victim from the slavery of living a life of despair and hopelessness and constant reliving of the victimization. This is very likely what Jesus did for that man at the synagogue that day he preached his first sermon.
And Walt in breaking his own slavery to a demonic force helped another do the same. There was no guarantee that would happen, but by God’s grace Mike was redeemed from his demonic living and freed from it.
We may understand that there is no separate creation of demons who are stronger than humans but weaker than God. But there are demonic forces … forces that capture our lives and drives us to evil ways despite our own knowing deep down that we are trapped in sin.
But it is through faith that we are given the chance to break out of these forces and resume a life of redemption and righteousness.
Think about it …
God’s grace and love be with you …