Gratitude and Responsibility: The Casting Out of Unclean Spirits

What a dramatic set of readings we have been given this Sunday! Each calls our attention in different ways to the themes of gratitude and responsibility for the gifts given to us by God. 

In the passage from Deuteronomy (18.15-20), the people are reminded that they asked God for a prophet and so one will be raised up from among them. But the people are also reminded that they must heed the words of the prophet and the prophet is reminded that they must speak only the words given to them by God. This is a serious business, asking God for what we think we need, because we are always responsible to one another and to God for the gifts we receive and the ways in which we choose to employ them. Deliberately squandering God’s gifts or putting them to purposes other than for which they were intended may be worse for the recipient than if they had never asked for the gift in the first place.

Psalm 111 continues this teaching. It is a deep and beautiful reflection on gratitude for the gifts received from God. But even here, in the final line, we are reminded that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; those who act accordingly have a good understanding…” Gifts received from God must be used wisely in recognition of the one who gave them. Gifts, after all, are not earned. They are given without an eye to merit, but out of love and generosity. Any idea that God’s gifts are ours by our own right, rather than ours by God’s grace, is one that needs to be questioned with the greatest care.

Today’s portion of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (8.1-13) also hearkens back to these themes of gifts and responsibility. In this case, Paul reminds the Corinthians or the gift of being a community joined together in Christ and their responsibility to one another. This seems to be a lengthy, Pauline version of “actions speak louder than words”. I wrote about this in the midweek note to the parish, so I will not belabour it here, but will say: The ways in which we behave as individuals and as communities tell those who are watching us a great deal about our values, our beliefs, and our commitments. If our actions seem not to match our words in one case, it calls all the rest of our statements into question.

Finally, today’s passage from the Gospel according to Mark (1.21-28) is the most overtly dramatic and where I would like to spend most of this time today. In this passage there are two major events: Jesus teaches in the synagogue with authority; one who opens new understandings, rather than repeating recorded wisdom from previous generations. Immediately following this teaching, “a man with an unclean spirit” in the synagogue cries out, accusing Jesus of being the Holy One of God. This is true, of course, but it is not something Jesus wishes revealed at this time. He silences the spirit and orders it out of the man. To everyone’s amazement, the spirit follows Jesus’s orders and leaves the man. Such authority, both to offer new teachings and to command spirits! The others in the synagogue are shocked and curious about who this man must be.

We know that healing and casting out unclean spirits is something that Jesus—and later the apostles—did a great deal of. It is so commonplace for them that often the evangelists record a particular incident or conversation in great detail and it ends with a line like “And Jesus went through the land, teaching, and healing, and casting out unclean spirits.” It happens so often that most of the instances aren’t worth writing down. This is everyday work for Jesus by the end of his pre-crucifixion ministry.

There is much speculation about just what the evangelists mean when they refer to demons or unclean spirits inhabiting people. Some theorize that these are first-century descriptions of mental illness, some that those affected are misunderstood neurodivergent people, some that there were no spirits but only elaborated stories for the purpose of making a point, and still others that there are malevolent unseen forces which prowl the world, seeking to steal our bodies and turn them to nefarious purposes. Hollywood certainly supports this latter idea; true or not it sells tickets to the cinema!

I am not so concerned today about the mechanics of what happened to the man, physiologically or otherwise. My apologies if you were looking forward to a homily about exorcism liturgies. No, what I think is most important today, given the themes of gratitude and responsibility present in the other readings, is how we understand what an unclean spirit might be and what we are called to do in response to their presence.

It seems fair to say that today we might understand unclean spirits, at least in part, as those ideas and systems which are not of God. Those tendencies and structures which inhabit our world and separate us from one another and from God. Racism, greed,  exploitation, violence, deceit, misogyny, homophobia, white supremacy, addiction, selfish entitlement, marginalization of our siblings, choices that maintain systemic poverty, and arrogant pride. These are all unclean spirits which live in our world and there are many more besides. They are here in Canada, in Manitoba, in Winnipeg, in our very own parish of Holy Trinity.

Each of us has had encounters with these spirits. In some cases as their victims. In others as those tortured by acting out their hurtful whims. In still others, as bystanders seeing it happen before us. We may not be able to command the unclean spirit with the immediate authority that Jesus displays in today’s Gospel passage, but this does not mean that we have no gifts to employ and no responsibility.

The gift of discernment is ours: We can name those unclean spirits and identify them when they reveal themselves. Naming racism, naming exploitation, naming deceit, naming selfish choices that exploit and impoverish others is the beginning of taking power from those actions. It draws the attention of others to the injustice and offers the beginning of healing to victims.

The employ of abundant blessings is ours: We can choose where we spend our money and time. We need not support employers who exploit their workers or who encourage discrimination and marginalization of our sibling children of God.  We need not support lawmakers who ignore the needs of those living in poverty in favour of those with more than enough. 

The gift of healing is ours: This ministry was entrusted to the apostles and all of the disciples and continues through the church today. We can offer places that are truly safe, where victims of these awful realities can shelter for a time. Places where healing can begin and where sanctuary for the hurt and the persecuted is found.

When we take up the ministry of calling out the unclean spirits of the world, of naming the injustices and sin which infect our lives, we do so by the grace of God. In being given the greatest gift of life in Christ we are also called to responsibility to be as Christ to the world. We give ourselves over to God’s will and begin to reflect not injustice and sin, but righteousness and glory.

I will close with the collect appointed for this Sunday:

Living God,
in Christ you make all things new.
Transform the poverty of our nature
by the riches of your grace,
and in the renewal of our lives
make known your glory;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Collect for the fourth sunday after epiphany

This homily was originally preached at Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Winnipeg.

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