Facing “Unclean Spirits”

Edvard Munch: The Scream

When Jesus and his disciples cross the sea into pagan territory– an important new step in his ministry– they meet a man in the tombs and Jesus drives the unclean spirit out of him. (Today’s reading: Mark 5, 1-20) 

Throughout  his ministry “whenever unclean sprits saw him they would fall down before him and shout, ‘You are the Son of God.’ (Mark 3,11) Unclean spirits were favorite targets for Jesus in his ministry.

What’s an “unclean spirit”?

In their fine commentary on Mark’s gospel John R. Donahue, SJ, and Daniel Harrington, SJ, say “In this context ‘unclean’ (akatharton) primarily connotes not a moral (even less a sexual) fault), but something opposed to the “holy.” In the command of the Old Testament to be holy (Leviticus 11,44) it implies life, wholeness and completeness,( Leviticus 21, 17-21) whereas uncleanness implies something that should not be, something out of place ( e.g. soil in a farmer’s field is productive, while in a house it’s dirt). The opposite of the realm of the holy is the demonic, hence the spirits there are “unclean”. Physical defects or psychological aberrations can make a person “unclean”in a sense of incomplete, imperfect and out of order.”
(The Gospel of Mark, Sacra Pagina, Liturgical Press 2002 page 80.)

Jesus did not focus on the intellectual establishment or the religious establishment in his ministry. He engaged the chaotic world of the “unclean spirits.” He set up a “field hospital” to use a phrase dear to Pope Francis.

That can be a messy, scary world, as we see in Mark’s gospel. Just think of the poor man in the tombs, chained and hurting himself. Who wants to deal with him? But Jesus gives his disciples “authority” over unclean spirits. His followers have the power to take them on.

Jesus commissioned  his apostles for this ministry. He summons “the twelve and began to send them out two by two and gave them authority over unclean spirits.” (Mark 6, 7) We’re not out of place in our chaotic world today.

1 thought on “Facing “Unclean Spirits”

  1. cenaclemary12

    Hardened hearts represent another kind of unclean spirit. As the cries in Psalm 51 shout: Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love;
    according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions.
    2 Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.
    3 For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me.
    7 Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow……
    9 Hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquity.
    10 Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
    11 Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me.
    12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.


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