28th January 2018 - Hugh Perry
Deuteronomy 18: 15-20
In Deuteronomy 17 there are instructions for the appointment of a king once they become settled in a new land. This needs to be one of their own people and, unlike other kings, will not have total authority but be guided by the law.
We now read from Deuteronomy where there is a promise of future prophets similar to Moses but the test of their validity is likewise to be the laws of Deuteronomy and Leviticus.
Mark 1: 21-28
In describing Jesus’ teaching Mark stresses that Jesus taught with authority and not like the scribes. The scribes were the experts on the law and their teaching expounded the existing law within the limits our Deuteronomy reading proscribes.
However there was also an expectation that understanding of scripture would change to meet new circumstances.
God would call prophets and rabbis, who had the authority of that calling, to reinterpret scripture and those in the synagogue obviously saw Jesus in that mould.
Our reading from Mark contains the first exorcism in Mark’s Gospel. The understanding alluded to in our Deuteronomy reading is that God calls prophets and rabbis who have the divine authority to reinterpret scripture. Mark has obviously included the man with the unclean spirit to inform his readers that Jesus has such authority. The word exorcism conjures up all sorts of images of things that go bump in the night. However in terms of understanding scripture for our time and place we should consider a whole variety of mental stress, addictions and ideologies as unclean spirits that people need liberation from.
Our assertion as Christians and the claim of Mark’s text is that a commitment to Christ can exorcise such demons and restore people to new beginnings. The downside of such an assertion is we have to make it happen. We have to be the liberating and restoring Christ to others.
It is strangely serendipitous that these readings come at the end of a week when the government announces a wide ranging inquiry into mental health services and I watched a program about curating the British Library exhibition ‘Harry Potter: A History of Magic.’ The exhibition included rare books, manuscripts and magical objects from the British Library’s collection that captured the traditions of folklore and magic from across the world. Much of this was original material that J.K. Rowling had accessed from subsequent publications when she was researching the Harry Potter novels. It was this research that gave Rowling’s fiction an air of authenticity and, at a time when we were worried and the lack of reading in young people, sent sales of Harry Potter books into the stratosphere.
One Librarian carefully handling a hand-written synopsis of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone explained that Rowling wrote it to try and sell the book to a publisher. The young woman then looked at the camera in a mixture of disbelief and adulation and said. ‘Who could believe that she had to sell Harry Potter?’
I remembered the story of Rowling as a solo mother sitting in a coffee bar writing and the number of times her manuscript was rejected and realised that miracles are always possible, but they do take an awful lot of hard work and commitment.
In fact there would be no church if Jesus had not travelled the hard road of Mark’s gospel from baptism in the Jordan to crucifixion outside Jerusalem. The documentary highlighted something else that I felt relevant to our world. That was a book of herbal remedies using common British plants. We know about various indigenous people that use forest and jungle plants as medicine and Maori have a whole list of our native plants with medicinal properties. My dad always put flax jelly on an open wound because he had learned about that from the Maori who worked on his family’s sheep station and the antibiotic prosperities of manuka honey are now scientifically proved.
Furthermore, Dr Siouxsie Wiles, who is head of the Bioluminescence Superbugs Group at the University of Auckland, is exploring the possibility of finding new antibiotics inside New Zealand fungi.
Apparently the British book of herbal remedies is the oldest published book apart from the Bible. What really intrigued me was that it was originally only published in Latin and when it was translated into English the Royal College of Surgeons tried to block its publication because that was where they got their medical recipes from. They didn’t want their fee paying patients wandering out to the hedgerows and mixing up their own medicine. In negotiating the latest international trade deal thought has been given to multi-national drug companies who lock up their recipes in international intellectual property treaties so that only the wealthy can afford the healing they need.
What the documentary showed was that people have always looked for easy answers to the unknown forces that seem to control our world and people seek power by controlling, or seeming to control such forces. But although some of the supposed magic rightly belongs in works of fiction there are real compounds in the natural world that can cure sickness and disease. There is also an evil streak in human nature that wants to monopolise healing knowledge for individual or select corporate gain.
It is easy to classify mental illness as demon possession and addictions of various sorts can be seen as possession by an unclean spirit. Even a simple non malignant habit can grip us in ways that make it difficult for us to change and grow. I think there are probably times in most of our lives when we would like to wave Harry Potter’s wand and make everything better.
That is the sort of impression we get from Jesus’ command to the unclean spirit and we would like to be able to help people that way. However like the effort that goes into a successful novel the reality of casting out demons is love over an extended period.
‘Be silent, and come out of him’ (Mark 1:25) sounds a very convenient magic charm like something that Harry Potter might use but the reality is that Mark’s Gospel is not an ancient book of spells in a British Library exhibition.
All the gospel narratives were written to encourage people to live in the way that Jesus modelled. The gospels are stories that encourage people to form communities of caring and empathetic communities that create an alternative way of living to the top down absolute monarchy that had become the normal for human society. Jesus call to be part of the kingdom of God was a call for each person to behave in a godly way to other people. The kingdom of God does not have a king or emperor because God in Christ is alive in each member of the divine realm.
The key message in today’s reading is that when we are interrupted by someone with an unclean spirit we react to them with love and compassion. That sounds great but it is actually hard and what makes it worse is that people with unclean spirits tend to interrupt life at the most inappropriate times.
Jesus was teaching at the Synagogue and the people were appreciating what he was telling them.
They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. (Mark 1:22) ’
Then suddenly the service is interrupted by this nutter who cries 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.’
Fortunately I have not had that happen to me in the middle of a service but such behaviour is not unheard of. When I was briefly an intern chaplain at Hillmorton hospital there were plenty of people with specially selected texts ready to tell me how God was using them. Fortunately my task was simply to show loving empathy and there were other professionals there to prescribe the appropriate potion, usually in tablet form.
However we have had people at Community Comment that continue to interrupt with incessant inappropriate questions that hinder the enjoyment and participation of others. At such times it would be great to be able to say ‘Open Sesame’ and unlock such a closed mind to reason and logic.
Mark simply tells us that Jesus addressed the unclean spirit and it came out of the man. But although we would like such power experience tells us that it is not that easy. A short Billy Connolly expression could eject the offender from the room but that would not be appropriate in this building. Furthermore Sir Billy’s New Zealand born wife is a psychologist and I am sure she would tells us that opening closed minds takes many, many sessions of professional therapy at considerable cost.
If we move away from the unclean spirits that cause people to interrupt worship and consider all the other demons that possess people in our society the cures require even more loving care and patience. Furthermore the chemical cures available often cause new problems. One of the readings in a paper on Pastoral care that I did contained the wise advice that when encouraging people to give up an addiction or even just an unhelpful habit we must expect to fail time and time again. Our task in the ministry of caring is certainly to encourage people to change but we must not be discourage when people fail. Our task as Christ filled carers is to stay with them and encourage them to begin again. That indeed is the image of the patient Christ who hears our lament, forgives our failings and invites us to ongoing new beginnings. The message in the exorcism incident in the synagogue, rather than the details that convey that message, is that Jesus accepts people where they are and invites them to move on from there. It is that example of accepting and inclusion that gave Jesus the authority to reinterpret scripture for his own time and that is what gives the church authority to reframe ancient stories, law and history in a way at speaks to our time and place.
We have noted that Jesus taught with authority and not as the scribes and Jesus earned his authority by the way he treated people. Jesus demonstrated his connection to the divine by behaving the way people expected a loving God to behave.
The scribes were the lawyers of their time and they expected people to come to God by obeying the law. Jesus, as our image of God, modelled the concept that because we come to God we will seek to obey the law.
It is that simple inversion of expectations that puts Jesus in the position of the prophets quoted in Deuteronomy and within the expectation that prophets called by God would have the authority to reinterpret the law for a new time and place.
We can imagine that Jesus teaching in the Synagogue in Capernaum grabbed the people’s attention as he expounded scripture in a way that addressed the issues of their day for them. Knowing the laws that Moses gave to the people wandering in the wilderness would be all very well but the people at Capernaum would want to know how those laws were relevant to their life as a marginalised people in the Roman Empire. What really demonstrated Jesus’ authority however was his ability to see past the unclean spirit and accept the man possessed as a truly human person worthy of divine love. That is the challenge of this passage to us.
We are called to walk beside the unloved and unlovable, and the results of such caring is what demonstrates Christ’s authority and the true magic of the Gospel.