Some weeks are better than others. Last Sunday we preachers were tossed a softball—the compelling and rich account of Jesus calling four disciples from their fishing boats at the Sea of Galilee. It’s a fun story to preach, with lots of beautiful imagery as well as some easy cultural entry points (Kim Kardashian, anyone?! No? Maybe that was just me…). This week, we’re not so lucky. In the fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, we find Jesus in the Temple, doing something distinctly non-Mainline Protestant: casting out “unclean spirits.” Yikes.
Jesus and his disciples went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried 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.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching– with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee. (Mark 1:21-28 NRSV)
When I encounter texts like these, my mind immediately starts doing some gymnastics. Here are a few examples of the questions that can preoccupy me:
- What was/is an unclean spirit?
- Do I believe in unclean spirits??
- Does my congregation believe in unclean spirits???
- If I try to “explain away” the unclean spirit, what am I left with????
Here, we arrive at the problem of “explaining away” a biblical text and/or part of a text. Today’s Christians read the Bible through the lens of a post-Enlightenment worldview (let’s not even mention a post-modern worldview). We can’t help it. We know all about the scientific method, about physiology, and—most of all—about empirical reason. An “unclean spirit” can be a real problem for us because we don’t know exactly what it means in the context of the gospel, but we feel compelled to find a scientific explanation for what Jesus was dealing with in the Temple that day. Is an unclean spirit kind of like a mental illness? Is it a physical malady, like epilepsy? We want to know because we want the story to fit into our worldview.