Exorcisms destroy power of social forces of oppression

February 8, 2016
GLEN ARGAN
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER

As in Luke's Gospel, St. Mark records Jesus' first public act after emerging from the desert as preaching in the Capernaum synagogue where his words met strong opposition. That, however, is where the similarity ends.

Mark's Gospel is characterized by an abruptness; the scenes change quickly, and Jesus is a man in a hurry. Despite the rapid movement, the scenes are connected. There are patterns to the narrative, and each event is set in context.

So while, in Luke's Gospel, the devil departs from Jesus after the temptation scene to return at an opportune time, Mark records several exorcisms as well as other miracles that display similarities to exorcisms. Jesus is engulfed in an unending battle against evil.

At the Capernaum synagogue on the Sabbath, Jesus preaches before the congregation who are astounded because he teaches with authority. Just then, a man with an unclean spirit 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" (Mark 1.24).

Jesus immediately silences the unclean spirit who convulses the man, screeches loudly and departs.

Again, the people are amazed - not only with Jesus' ability to exorcise demons, but with his authoritative teaching.

Jesus' fame spreads throughout the region and by the end of the Sabbath, a crowd of people who are sick or possessed with demons has gathered. He cured the people and cast out demons.

The demon in the synagogue, it should be noted, sees the exorcism not as a one-time event, but as the first shot in an all-out war on demonic rule.

Commentator Ched Myers, in his book Binding the Strong Man, maintains that the synagogue demon speaks on behalf of the scribal aristocracy, a view which has more than a little to commend it. Exorcism, Myers writes, reveals the combat between the powers of evil "and their earthly minions" versus Jesus who proclaims God's kingdom.

As Jesus performs more healings and large multitudes follow him, some scribes come to Galilee from Jerusalem to undermine the Jesus movement. They argue, "He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of demons he casts out demons" (Mk 3.22).

This is nonsense, as Jesus quickly points out. "How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand" (3.24).

The basic issue, then, is why the scribes were determined to discredit Jesus and his ministry. Healers and exorcists were common in the Middle East at that time and did not normally draw sanctions from religious authorities.

Matthew's Gospel adds Jesus' further response: "If it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you" (12.28). Such a response makes Jesus' conflict with the authorities even more apparent.

The scribes, as well as the Pharisees and the Herodians, are clearly out to get Jesus from early on in Mark's Gospel, repeatedly sending out delegations from Jerusalem to plot against him.

HERD OF PIGS

Most telling is Mark's account of the healing of the Gerasene demoniac (5.1-20), the longest story in this Gospel prior to the Passion. Prior to casting the demon into a herd of pigs, Jesus gets the demon to tell his name - Legion.

Such a response would be similar to a demon today named "Marines" or "KGB."

What happens next underlines the military imagery; the "herd" of pigs drown themselves in the lake, similar to the drowning of Pharaoh's army in the Red Sea.

Moreover, Gerasa was the site of a Jewish uprising in which the Romans suppressed the revolt by massacring about 1,000 of the Jewish rebels. Mark, by setting this important exorcism there, means to link demons with the Roman occupation.

MENTAL DISORDERS

Paul Hollenbach, in an extensive study of demonology in Jesus' time, wrote that mental illness, such as that which might underlie some instances of demon possession, could be seen as a "socially acceptable" form of protest against or escape from political oppression. Mental disorders were a symptom of the upheaval of a society in intense internal conflict such as first century Palestine experienced.

Conversely, society's elites often used accusations of witchcraft and possession as a means of social control, especially in times of social unrest, Hollenbach said.

The scribes, Pharisees and Herodians saw Jesus as a threat to their own collusion with the occupation forces, collusion from which they profited handsomely. The exorcisms not only repudiate such collusion, but help to break its control over the people.

ECONOMIC EXPLOITATION

Jesus soon strongly denounces the scribes for their arrogance and economic exploitation of the poor: "Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honour at banquets.

The Gerasenes themselves realized that exorcisms could have political repercussions; seeing the demoniac healed, they begged Jesus to leave their neighbourhood (5.17).

Jesus was no zealot who urged an armed uprising. But his words and symbolic actions had a power of their own, a power that confronted a demonic political and economic system which held the vast majority of people in chains.