So what do you make of the story we’ve just read from the Gospel of Luke? Do you believe in ‘demons’ or ‘unclean spirits’ that ‘possess’ people and cause physical and mental illness? Do you believe that these ‘demons’ can be ‘cast out’ and that Jesus had power over them, as this story testifies? Or do you suspect that this story so heavily reflects first-century beliefs about human behavior and illness that it has little relevance to us who live in the modern era? Is it difficult for you to make sense of “Jesus, the exorcist”?
Our ability to hear, to comprehend and to profit from accounts like this one from Luke’s gospel is certainly shaped by our modern context. On the one hand, we are enlightened people, with access to vast amounts of information about human psychology, human behavior, and human illnesses that simply did not exist in Jesus’ day. So we might naturally be skeptical about first-century assumptions about demons and demon-possession. It’s likely that we could come up with a number of other plausible explanations for what might have happened that day in the synagogue at Capernaum that would make more sense to our modern minds.
On the other hand, we’ve also been shaped (like it or not) by our own culture, just as the people in this story were shaped by theirs. When we hear about demon possession or read about Jesus performing an exorcism, our response is likely to have been conditioned, at least in part, by our culture’s understanding of these things – which is reflected, for example, in the ways these things have been portrayed in movies. According to Wikipedia, the 1973 horror film, “The Exorcist,” was one of the highest grossing films in history, grossing over $441 million. It was the first horror movie to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture, and has been called “the scariest movie of all time.” Given the number of people who saw it, we can assume that its images and representations have influenced an entire generation. How does it impact the way we might imagine this scene in Capernaum?
It’s not easy to get at the hidden meaning of a story like this one. But it’s important to try to understand what this story might have meant to its author, Luke, and to the people for whom he was writing his gospel. It’s important, too, for us who take the Bible seriously to wrestle with stories like these and to discern their significance for our own lives of faith.
The story is drawn from Luke chapter 4 and is the first of six vignettes from Jesus’ ministry that Luke uses to demonstrate the range of Jesus’ activity – teaching, preaching, healing, exorcising demons and calling disciples – but also to explain his popularity, especially among the people living in the region of Galilee, the northern part of Israel. Capernaum, where this story takes place, is located on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. Luke tells us that, following this miracle, “reports about him spread everywhere in the surrounding region” (v. 37) and later that “when the sun was setting, everyone brought to Jesus relatives and acquaintances with all kinds of diseases” and that “placing his hands on each of them, he healed them” (v. 40). Jesus enjoyed a measure of popularity in Galilee that he did not find in Jerusalem, where his words and deeds were more often met with unbelief.
The story also serves to verify Jesus’ claim about his mission and purpose recorded at the beginning of chapter four of Luke’s Gospel. You might remember that earlier story: In the synagogue at Nazareth, his hometown, Jesus is invited to comment on the scriptures and chooses to quote the words of the prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me. He has sent me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19, quoting Isaiah 61:1-2, 58:6). He then applies these words to himself and to the mission he has been given by God. Now, just a few verses later, Luke recounts the story of the exorcism at the synagogue in Capernaum as evidence for Jesus’ claim that he had come to “proclaim release to the prisoners” and “to liberate the oppressed.” For Luke, this is clearly Jesus’ mission and purpose, and this story bears witness to that mission.
We might say just a word about “demon possession” as it is understood in the New Testament. New Testament scholar Fred Craddock explains that “Belief in demons was not native to Judaism and therefore entered through contact with other cultures. Demons were said to inhabit deserts, large bodies of water, the air, and the subterranean regions. When they entered a person they were considered to be the cause of blindness, muteness and all kinds of physical problems as well as mental disorders.” (Craddock, p.65) It is important to note, he goes on to say, that “the influence of demons is physical or mental, not moral” (ibid, p. 66). In other words, we should not assume that a person who was possessed by demons had somehow invited their presence through their own fault. Demons were not evidence of moral failures on the part of the sufferer, nor did demons cause people to act immorally. Instead, they were presumed to cause physical or mental illness.
The three synoptic gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke – are in agreement that Jesus encountered people possessed by demons on several occasions and that he demonstrated his authority to cast out these demons and restore people to health. It’s interesting to note that there are no exorcisms recorded in the Gospel of John, although other miracles of Jesus are cited by John as “signs” of God’s power at work in Jesus. The exorcism stories in the New Testament normally include a confrontation between the healer and the one possessed; sometimes accompanied by shouting, and often involving the calling out of a name, since it was widely believed that speaking the name of the person or power would give one authority over it. In this story, for example, the unclean spirit seems to have been stirred up by Jesus’ authoritative teaching in the synagogue. He screams, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth! Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are. You are the holy one from God” (v. 34). The demon’s attempt to defeat or at least neutralize Jesus’ power by calling out his name proves insufficient, and Jesus is able to silence him and drive the spirit out with a single command.
The point of the story, for Luke, is that “Jesus is a teacher of the word of God and that word has power” (Craddock, p.67). His authority, both as a teacher and a healer, amazes the crowd and gives clear evidence that he is truly the One sent by God “to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
So, let me return to that earlier question, “What do you make of this story?” If you are skeptical about the whole business of “demons” and “demon possession,” or if you are hesitant to embrace Jesus as “exorcist,” what could you take from this story?
Perhaps it is enough to recognize that there are powers of evil and hatred in the world that destroy people and rob them of life. There are powers that oppress and enslave others, especially the poor and the weak among us. There are people and organizations that diminish and destroy people and animals and other living things, often in pursuit of wealth or power for themselves. Jesus opposes these powers that bring death instead of life. He is on the side of justice, of truth, of liberation, of freedom. This is reason enough for us to embrace his cause and follow him.
It is essential to recognize that these powers of evil and hatred can infect the Church just as readily as they can infect governments or businesses or other human institutions. The headlines of this past week, revealing to us the widespread abuse of children by members of the clergy and the cover-up by Church authorities that followed it, ought to serve as a reminder that religious people and organizations can also be agents of destruction and death, of injustice and cruelty. They do not always bring life! Like the demons in gospel stories, these evil forces need to be named and called out. They need to be confronted and challenged and overcome. They are agents of destruction and they lead to death, not life. They act in opposition to all that God desires and wills.
Engaging these forces of evil in the world and in the Church can be costly business. It was for Jesus, and it will be for us. It takes courage to name evil and to challenge it. It takes persistence to stand on the side of justice, especially when that opens us to ridicule, rejection or persecution. Following Jesus will often bring us into conflict with the pervasive values and the dominant culture of our time. Here, the gospel stories can provide us with inspiration and direction. Our mission is Jesus’ mission. And Jesus’ mission is God’s mission: to liberate and set free, to heal and deliver, to bless, and to bring life. How does that mission shape our lives? How can we be a force for good in the world, bringing life and light and truth to situations where people are being hurt or oppressed, where power is misused, where the truth is twisted or discounted? Jesus goes before us, providing us with his own example, but also gifting us with his presence and power. We put our trust in him as we take on the challenge of confronting the evil spirits of our own age.
Resource:Craddock, Fred B.; Luke (Interpretation Commentary); Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1990; pp. 64-67.
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