Hebrews 2:5-12/Psalm 8/Mark 1:21-28
I find it difficult—impossible, actually—to think in first century terms. Casting out unclean spirits or demons is something that simply does not relate to anything in my experience or worldview. At least as it’s presented in the story.
I might say, however, something like, “I’ve really been struggling with my demons lately.” Speaking metaphorically. I am well aware from experience that we human beings can find ourselves under the sway of forces beyond our control.
That evil exists, that human beings do evil things is fairly obvious. Why we do such things is much more complicated. The precise nature of guilt is elusive; culpability is a murky thing.
A recent film “Notes on a Scandal”, showing now locally, is a fascinating reflection on evil and culpability. Judy Dench and Cate Blanchett are brilliant in their roles as two school teachers. There is no “demonic possession” per se—but there is crime and there is evil and two people caught up in forces neither one is able to overcome. Something possesses them; something has hold of them and evil actions are the result. Dame Judy is nasty; Cate is pathetic. They each have their “demons”. When these demons get tangled up, a lot of people get hurt.
But the more we see of these two women, the more we realize that they themselves are victims: victims of their own wounds, victims of the pathologies these wounds have created. Victims of forces they did not create and that they cannot control. As the story unfolds we see more and more of this context. In one case, a profound and unbearable loneliness. In the other, an emotional frailty exacerbated by a failing marriage and the stress of raising two difficult children.
Some movie reviewers have called the Judy Dench character evil. What she does is evil. But what the film does so brilliantly is make real to us the context that breeds this evil. The Cate Blanchett character is more sympathetic, although, strictly speaking, criminal. For both characters, however, life spins out of control.
The question left hanging at the end of the film is “just how guilty are these two women? They commit crimes, but how culpable are they?” The point is, we don’t really know.
And so it is. We want to know who the good guys are, who the bad guys are (or gals). But the more we look, the more we see. All around us we see context. We see that evil has a context. The more we see about peoples’ lives, the more we see people under the sway of forces they did not create and that they often cannot overcome. A pathology can be organic (as in the way some people’s body chemistry handles alcohol or drugs). It can be relational (as in the way we live out of the deep wounds to our humanity). A pathology can be organic and relational at the same time. Our “demons”.
An uncomfortable fact of human existence is context. Uncomfortable because we can’t completely control our context or understand it. And contexts we can’t control or understand breed forces we can’t control or understand. We may have some measure of control, but it can quickly disintegrate under stress.
Most of us have been socialized not to be blatant evildoers. But we do find ourselves crossing that line between good and not- good. And crossing that line is almost never something we do intentionally with full awareness. Usually, we become aware that—oops–somewhere, back there, we crossed the line. In the moment, the line was not clear. Only hindsight shows us that we transgressed. “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”
Maybe this is why Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Maybe it’s why he said, “Judge not…” Maybe it’s why he said “You who are without sin cast the first stone.” Maybe it’s why he said, “forgive 70 times 7 times.” A Christian approach to sinful behavior surely should take Jesus’ own words seriously. The more we understand about the context of a person’s behavior, the more we are inclined toward generosity of spirit. The less we are inclined to judge. The more we are aware of our own inner “demons”, the more we are inclined to be understanding of others’.
Jesus must have understood much. What else could have made him so eager to forgive our sins, so willing to be himself the “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” He must have possessed what we today would call a keen psychological insight. I think he must have seen the fear that infects our souls: fear of death, fear of failure, fear of loss of dignity, fear of loneliness (as in the film), fear of not being loved.
We are so prone to fear. Fear may very well be the mother of many demons. The most unclean of unclean spirits. (To speak metaphorically.) And there are more: poverty, physical and mental illness, cycles of abuse… The context of our sins—your sins and mine.
I think Jesus must have understood context. He understood, he forgave. In love with us, he forgave. And still forgives. His love, in us, inclines our hearts to do the same. His forgiveness, in us, inclines our hearts to the same generosity of spirit.
Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us—especially when we have little mercy ourselves. Help us to see as you see; help us to understand as you understand. Help us to forgive as you forgive.
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