of demons and exorcisms

Eleventh century fresco of the Exorcism at the Synagogue in Capernaum

Our text for Sunday dealt with a topic that doesn’t come up much in mainstream Christianity: exorcism. Jesus casts out an unclean spirit in an unnamed man, and we’re left to figure out what that means for us, today. I wrestled with it some on Sunday (and all last week) and I’m still not sure I’ve got it sorted out. I did find good news in the story for the day, though. Audio of those thoughts below and text after the jump.

Let’s just cut right to the chase and deal with the whole unclean spirit, exorcism thing. I’m guessing it gives at least a few of us the heebie-jeebies. How do we read stories like this?

Some of us just don’t read stories like this. We decide, well, exorcisms don’t jibe with my view of reality, so I’m just skip those parts. Everyone does this with some part of the Bible. Everyone. Of every theological stripe.

It’s okay to set a story aside for a while—as long as, like with peas and carrots when you were a kid, you keep trying it from time to time.

Today we’re going to give this story a try. I’ve found some good news. Maybe you will also find it to be good news, too.

Let’s be clear at the outset, though, on what we are not talking about: this story is not about some sort of goblin or gremlin, that could invade our bodies or run around wreaking havoc. That is a character from fantasy or horror—neither of which is what we have here.

So how do we understand this unclean spirit? We could take the idea of spirits somewhat literally—that there are spiritual forces of evil and good at work in the world, forces that can’t be seen or measured but that are real nonetheless.

This kind of idea is helpful because it reminds us that evil is real. Any understanding of the world that doesn’t account for evil is a pipe dream, a dangerous pipe dream.

But this literal idea of evil spirits at work in the world has some drawbacks too. For one thing, if there are actual unclean spirits that can take over our hearts, there’s the temptation to avoid responsibility for our actions. That’s not my fault. The devil made me do it.

For another thing, suggesting that an evil spirit has taken over a person makes that person subhuman. Some Christians claim that homosexuality is a demonic spirit. That claim is not just wrong; it is also dangerous. If a person has been possessed by a demonic spirit, any violence can be justified. We see that violence in hate crimes, bullying, or self-inflicted harm. As Christians we have a responsibility to refute the religious justification for such violence, and call out the dehumanizing, destructive tendencies inherent.

There’s another way we could approach this evil spirit thing. We could take a more scientific point of view. These spirits, we could say, are ways of explaining natural phenomenon. In a pre-scientific world where you don’t understand why the tides come in and out, why some couples have children and others don’t, why it rains some years and not others, there are spirits everywhere, making all this happen. Illness, especially mental illness becomes a spiritual matter.

From this perspective, the story is about Jesus healing physical problems—abnormal brain chemistry of some sort. This view affirms that our flesh and blood, our seratonin and dopamine, and all the rest, matters to God.

But if we go down this road, we want to tread carefully because mental illness is not evil. And, the line between healthy and unhealthy, in our bodies and our minds, is not so clear cut. Healing often has as much to do with life in the midst of illness as it does with casting it out.

Well, then. Clear as mud? There are problems everywhere we turn. No wonder we might be tempted to skip this story. But when in doubt, always return to the text. How did this text describe the spirit?

Literally: unclean. The pew Bible in front of you uses the word evil, as do some other translations. But the better translation is unclean.

The spirit in this man was unclean. Impure. Not presentable. Something to hide.

We don’t tend to think about our spiritual lives in terms of cleanliness. We know that in Jesus’ time countless things could make you unclean. Sitting too close to a woman. Talking to the wrong person. Eating the wrong food. We tend to caricature this kind of stuff and act like we don’t these ideas anymore.

But just because we stopped talking about spiritual cleanliness, doesn’t mean we stopped experiencing the dynamics at work. We do know what it’s like to feel spiritually unclean.

To start with a really insignificant example, I hate it when my fingernails are dirty. I can tolerate a lot of dirt in my house and on my car. But when my fingernails are dirty I feel like everything’s fallen apart. I sit on my hands in meetings, both literally and figuratively. I know it’s just dirt. But boy, it feels like a moral failing.

There are corners of our lives that are like this too, where there are cobwebs that we can’t seem to reach, which shame us to no end. They are the parts of our lives that we think, if anyone knew about this, they’d stop loving me.

If anyone knew how angry I am, or how scared. If anyone knew how much I drink, or think about sex, or eat late at night. If anyone knew how rarely I pray, or that I don’t feel like I can pray… If anyone knew how deeply I’m doubting, or what a failure I feel like.

Like this man, we bring all of this to worship with us. But we don’t lift these things up, out loud for prayer. In our community sharing time we don’t often say, I’m really struggling with envy or laziness or pride. We don’t even share it discretely with our closest friends. We try to keep it quiet, keep it inside, don’t let anyone see that we didn’t scrub our fingernails, and that our hearts are smudged and torn.

We look around at everyone else whose hair is combed so nicely and we think, gosh, if they knew… I wonder if that’s how this man felt.

This external hiding often becomes an internal hiding. We don’t even really admit this stuff to ourselves, much less bring it to God.

Would this man, of his own choosing, ever have come to Jesus and said, I’m unclean? Wash me. Heal me. Please?

How long had he lived this way? I wonder how it had twisted relationships in his life?

Because, as any good housekeeper knows, dirt spreads. In the southeast we have kudzu. Here we have mold. Regardless, it spreads. And when it’s our hearts that carry this gunk, we spread it ourselves.

Our inner shame—however small its origin—seeps out. We speak harshly to strangers. Our sense of inferiority leads us to demean and diminish others. We seek comfort in consumption. And we get so wrapped up in easing or covering our own shame that we unable to see the injustice and inhumanity of our way of life. We are unable to choose another way. We are captive.

And if we live with this kind of dirt in our souls long enough, we lose hope that even God could love us.


But into this house of worship, and into the life of this unnamed, unclean man strides Jesus.

And the unclean spirit in this man lashes out. Brokenness knows wholeness when it sees it, and is threatened by it.

Sin is like that. It lashes out and hurts others when they try to love on us.

And when we try to love someone but we get cut on their rough edges, how easy it is to write the whole person off. They’re not worth our time, we say. I’m not worth God’s time, we might say.

But Jesus, Jesus sees clearly. He sees the real person, the true creation, the child of the Living God. And he reclaims this mans’ life. He saves him from that unclean spirit.

He cuts away the bad, casts it out, transforms it, reshapes it—use the image that works for you. But what Jesus does, is save this man.

Jesus sees him clearly, both beauty and brokenness, both clean and dirty, and with authority, with power, with freedom, he saves this man, even though the man was helpless to even so much as ask for Jesus.

And, did you notice, in the presence of Jesus, even the unclean spirit, spoke truth? This spirit—whatever it was, however we conceive of it—this part of this man that was ugly and unwanted and unhelpful testified to who Jesus was and what he was about.

This is why it’s not such a good idea to try to do spiritual surgery on ourselves, much less others, ripping out the parts we don’t like, pushing down what we can’t rip out. That task, the task of cleaning house, belongs ultimately to God.

And thank goodness. Because sometimes repentance on our own steam seems impossible. A fresh start is unthinkable. We want to do right, but we don’t know how.

When we cannot save ourselves, when the mold has won and the shame’s too much to bear, when we fear even a whisper of the truth, Jesus comes with Light and Life and Love, calling out the destructive, dirty parts of our lives, and setting us free to live as new creatures.

Make no mistake. This is not an empty gospel of I’m okay, you’re okay. The Holy One brings an end to some things—to patterns of abuse or oppression that may be paralyzing but are at least familiar, anger that burns hot and keeps us warm, pride that puffs us up—to all of this, the Holy One says, enough. No more. You may no longer run this person’s life.

That end, of those ways of being, may feel like dying. That’s why it’s scary to open our lives to Christ’s movement. It may feel like the end of all we know.

Even though it is just the beginning.

And let’s be clear. This is not just a one time thing—not this side of the grave. We are washed and claimed in the waters of baptism, but the dirt creeps in, the cobwebs come back, we find new ways of going astray.

But Jesus does not abandon us.

Whatever it is that you carry today, that you are scared to name, that harms you or those around you, that prevents you from sharing Christ’s love with the world, that keeps you from being a sign of the new creation, that holds you in bondage and thereby visits death and destruction on others—whatever it is that for you is an unclean spirit, Jesus is here, just as he was in that house of worship many years ago. And he says to those spirits, to those demons that seek to run our lives and poison our world—Be quiet! Come out.

This is how love comes to us. Like an exorcist casting out demons, like someone keeping house, sweeping out the cobwebs.

There is no corner too dark, no shame too deep, for the cleansing, healing, redeeming light of love. Here is the truth, friends: in Christ we are forgiven. We are made new. We are set free. We are saved.

This, is the good news of the gospel. Thanks be to God!

by Sarah W. Wiles
January 29, 2012
Bethany Presbyterian Church
Tacoma, WA
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