Casting out demons (Mark 6; Pentecost 6B)

“Proclaiming the message and casting out demons” (1:39) is how the activities of Jesus are characterised from the start of the beginning of the good news of Jesus. His earliest message was clear: “the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, believe the good news” (1:15). His activity, also, was striking: he rebukes unclean spirits (1:23–26), “healed many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons” (1:34).

Jesus sent out his followers on mission, propelling them into the towns and villages, to proclaim the message and cast out demons. See https://johntsquires.com/2021/06/29/just-sandals-and-a-staff-and-only-one-tunic-mark-6-pentecost-6b/. And if there was no welcome in any place they stopped and spoke, they were to shake the dust off their feet and move on. See https://johntsquires.com/2021/06/30/shake-the-dust-off-your-feet-mark-6-pentecost-6b/

Proclaiming the message, as disciples of Jesus, is something that we are quite familiar with today—after all, Sunday worship in Protestant churches is set up to revolve around the “proclamation of the word” in the sermon. But casting out demons? That is something far less familiar to, and comfortable for, 21st century followers of Jesus.

Some of the most striking stories told of Jesus were those relating the miraculous deeds he performed: curing lepers, healing the sick, controlling the forces of nature, even raising the dead. These are miracles that resonate with us in the 21st century. By and large, we think we have ways of understanding what occurred in such incidents. But casting out demons? That sits uneasily for many 21st century people.

Not in the ancient world. Interactions with demons was part and parcel of the worldview of the time, for both Jews and Gentiles. Jesus is said to have engaged in conversations with demons which were possessing individuals, and he was able to command the demons to leave those individuals (Mark 1:23–26; 5:1–15; 7:24–30). In some cases, demonic possession was manifested in the body in medical ways: what looks like epilepsy (Mark 9:19–29), or an inability to speak (Matt 9:32–33), coupled with blindness (Matt 12:22).

The section of the Gospel that is offered by the revised common lectionary for this coming Sunday includes specific reference to casting out demons. On the very first occasion when Jesus gathered all twelve apostles together, he had given them a twofold commission: “he appointed twelve…to be with him and to be sent out to proclaim the message and to have authority to cast out demons” (Mark 3:14–15). To be with him, following as disciples; and to be sent out, engaged in mission.

In this section from the narrative, Jesus sends out his followers, and “they cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and healed them” (Mark 6:13).

How are we to understand these references to demons in these first century texts? Two extreme possibilities come to mind. We can accept them as accurate and reliable historical accounts. Demons existed, as Jesus dealt with them as reported. We just have to accept these stories as they stand. Or: we can dismiss them as first century flights of fancy. Demons do not exist, and such encounters are fabrications. We don’t need to worry too much about these accounts. But neither alternative, really, is acceptable.

A further option is to consider the demon as an ancient way of understanding what today we consider to be serious cases of mental illness. In the ancient world, schizophrenia, epilepsy and serious mental illnesses were not grasped in the ways of understanding that modern psychology has provided. The ancients had their own descriptions and categories for such behaviours.

It was commonly assumed by people of that time, that some people were acting oddly because they were possessed by unclean spirits, or demons. (The same creature is called by these two names, at Mark 7:25–26 and Luke 8:29, 9:42; and Luke 4:33 refers to “a man who had the spirit of an unclean demon”). In this view, Jesus was not really casting out demons – he was rather healing people with severe mental illnesses. That might work for us today.

There is a fourth option, which has gripped the attention of a number of scholarly interpreters of the Gospels. Some understand demonic possession to be an ancient mythological way of speaking about systemic evil. Systemic evils are harmful beliefs and actions that are manifested in society in negative and destructive ways. So it is not the antisocial or destructive behaviour of individuals that is in view; rather, it is the dysfunctional and damaging patterns of behaviour manifested by individuals, groups, and indeed whole societies, under the sway of systemic “demons”.

Walter Wink wrote about the “principalities and powers” which grip society and result in terrible consequences. Herman Waetjen saw the story of Jesus as an extended conflict between political powers—Jewish and Roman leadership, on one side, and Jesus and his followers on the other.

The notion that a demon would bind the person that they inhabited is found at Luke 13:16, and in the Jewish book of Jubilees (5:6; 10:7-11). The book of the same title by Ched Myers provides a fine guide to reading the whole of Mark’s Gospel through this lens (see https://chedmyers.org/2013/12/05/blog-2013-12-05-binding-strong-man-25-years-old-month/) For Myers, the whole Gospel reflects a socio-political struggle within the society of ancient Israel. Could that be what is going on, when Jesus casts out demons, and his followers also cast out demons?

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Walter Wink, Naming the Powers: The Language of Power in the New Testament, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984.

Wink, Unmasking the Powers: The Invisible Forces That Determine Human Existence, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986.

Wink, Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992.

Herman Waetjen, A Re-ordering of Power: A Socio-Political Reading of Mark’s Gospel, Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1989.

Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1995.

And see Richard Neill Donovan: ‘Mark uses “unclean spirit” and “demon” almost interchangeably. The former suggests ritual impurity or unworthiness, and the latter suggests evil. Talk of spirits and demons seems primitive and makes us uncomfortable today. We prefer to speak of poverty and mental illness as the causes of bizarre behavior. We also hesitate to use the word evil, which sounds judgmental, and look to medical science to deliver us from our demons. Medical science has accomplished a great deal in that regard, and promises to achieve even more. However, medical science is unlikely ever to solve the problem of evil, which is a spiritual problem and a present reality. We have only to read a newspaper to confirm the pervasive presence of evil in our world.’ https://sermonwriter.com/biblical-commentary/mark-121-28/