In today’s gospel from Mark at Mass, Jesus commissions his apostles for ministry. He summons “the twelve and began to send them out two by two and gave them authority over unclean spirits.” (Mark 6, 7) Jesus often drives out unclean spirits in his ministry, Mark says. After he’s baptized in the Jordan and comes to Capernaum, Jesus and his disciples go into the synagogue on that “paradigmatic day” and Jesus first drives an unclean spirit out of a man. (Mark 1, 16-34)
When Jesus and his disciples cross the sea into pagan territory– an important new step in his ministry– Jesus meets a man in the tombs and drives the unclean spirit out of him. (Mark 5, 1-20)
As Jesus extends 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 engage primarily the intellectual establishment or the religious establishment when he came. 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.