Do you believe in demons? It’s not a completely fair question because we may understand the word differently. Maybe you do or don’t believe in the red skinned, big fanged creatures that come from hell to interfere and play havoc on human life. Maybe you think of those who inhabit human souls, waiting for an exorcism. Maybe the kind of demon you believe in is the more metaphoric demons that we sometimes have to battle: demons of fear, addiction, or hatred.
I’m not going to tell you what to believe but I can say with some certainty what most of the people of Jesus time believed. For them, demons were very real beings that lived on the spirit plane along with their main rivals, the angels. This was almost like a parallel universe that overlaid this one but every once in a while, one of these spirit creatures would jump across and do their business in our world.
The presence of demons would often be blamed for anything that took away a person’s control – one of the most common we hear about in scripture is with seizure disorders. There was no way they could know about chemical imbalances in the brain or epilepsy so if someone fell down shaking violently, seeming to have lost control over their own bodies, people often believed a demon had taken over.
Even the metaphoric demons have this same quality of taking over. Demons take over your life, taking away your ability to determine your own actions. If someone is dealing with the demons of mental illness, that person is dealing with qualities of their own life that is largely beyond their control. Imagine you have a bad cold and you’re in the middle of a sneezing or coughing fit. Can you just decide that you’re not going to sneeze any more? If you have the flu, can you just say that you’re done feeling nauseated? No of course not but it’s just as crazy to say to someone with depression to pull up their socks and get over it, or say to someone with schizophrenia, “it’s all in your head.”
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus is confronting a demon. It’s the beginning of his ministry and he’s teaching in the synagogue. People are amazed at what he’s saying and with the authority which he seems to carry. Mark directly contrasts this with the scribes who are the ones supposed to carry authority. At this time, it was the scribes who were known for their interpretation and adherence to the law. This gave them a great deal of power and prestige. They were the ones who upheld tradition but that tradition was not always based on the Torah. Instead, this was a tradition rooted in past translations of other interpretations of the Torah. Eventually, the law had more to do with upholding long standing power structures than what God actually wished for God’s people.
While Mark doesn’t tell us what Jesus said that was so astounding, I imagine that he was talking about the transformative, earth changing law of God while what was most often shared in the synagogue was status quo.
This is where the demon enters the story. We don’t know too much about what or who this is. We don’t really know if this seen as a real unclean spirit or a metaphor, a literary device used by a skilled author to make a point. Either way, what the demon says is very interesting. He screams out “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” What he says here is actually a common expression used several times in the Bible. It’s a turn of phrase, an idiom. These are notoriously hard to translate from one language to another because it means more than what the words actually represent. If you said to someone who was new to english, “that store charges an arm and a leg” are they going to know what that means? Are they going to think things there are expensive or are they going to be horrified and avoid the store for fear of their life.
When the demon says “What have you to do with us,” what it really means is, “why can’t you leave well enough alone?”
It makes sense doesn’t it? Here’s Jesus confronting the Scribes in the synagogue. They want everything to stay exactly the same because they already have all the power. Here’s the demon – a demon that goes by the name “Well Enough Alone.” And like other demons this one takes away peoples freedom to live full lives and make choices for themselves. The scribes could decide who was worthy to worship God and who was not. The scribes could decide who could be protected by the law and who was punished by it. The scribes had control over the everyday lives of the Jewish people, and that control could at times be horribly oppressive.
Now along comes Jesus and the threat is made – a threat that will be a part of his entire ministry and a threat that will take him to the cross – he has the gall to disturb Well Enough Alone. Jesus was the one person who was seen to carry enough authority to challenge the way things have always been.
You know, this demon, “Well Enough Alone?” It’s still around. It’s still taking control of unsuspecting lives and propping up unjust traditions and powers. A challenge that the United Church faced long ago and a challenge faced still today in many churches is the roll of women. For too long the demon Well Enough Alone kept women from offering leadership. This is an oppressive rule that cannot be justified in the Bible but is instead an artifact of tradition. As it says in our reading though, Jesus has authority. Jesus, the one who broke social boundaries and spoke to women, taught women and commissioned women to spread the good news has the authority to overrule our traditions.
Still today, people of different sexual orientations and gender expressions are persecuted, often in the name of Christianity. Can this be justified with the Bible? No. Did you know that the Bible actually is actually more clear in it’s condemnation of eating shell fish? Something to think about next time a shrimp ring is served at a party. No, this is once again, an artifact of our traditions – it is an injustice upheld by the demon, “well enough alone.” But Jesus has authority – Jesus, the one who challenges his followers to look beyond labels of Gentile and Jew, rich and poor, powerful and powerless. Jesus, the one who took those that society held in scorn and made them the heroes of his stories, holds the authority.
In the world outside of the church, there is no natural law that says that our economic systems must keep a large portion of humanity poor and desperate. There is no law that says that we must choose between prosperity and a healthy environment. Unfortunately, the demon Well Enough Alone has tricked many into believing that this is the only way. Jesus though has the authority to exorcise this demon – Jesus is the one who teaches us to love our neighbour whether it the person next door or around the world, in plain view or out of sight, in this generation or in generations to come.
As we look to the future of our church – whether that be the congregation of St. Andrew’s United or the global Christian church, we have the opportunity to choose. We can choose who it is that we hold as authority. The demon Well Enough Alone is pretty compelling. It has served well those who wanted to hold power. It has indeed been given authority throughout much of our past. Is it not time though, to grant authority to the one who offers to lead us into the age to come; the age where all people live with blessing? Is it not time to recognize Jesus’ authority and open our minds to what could be rather than close our minds to anything but what is?
I have to believe that there is more, that we can do better, that we can walk more closely with God and God’s law. I have to believe that there can be a time without war, a time when no child will die of starvation or disease simply because of the geography of their birth. If this is to happen though, we will once and for all, have to exorcise Well Enough Alone and place our trust and authority where it belongs – with Jesus.