Our gospel today is from the first chapter of Mark. Jesus has come from his baptism in the River Jordan, gathered disciples and is living at Peter’s house in Capernaum along the Sea of Galilee. He enters the synagogue in the town and amazes people with his teaching. They’ve never heard anyone like him.
But a man in the synagogue with an unclean spirit challenges him. I’m not sure what an unclean spirit is, and neither do most of the commentators on this gospel. The man certainly reacts violently to Jesus, shouting out:
“What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!” (Mark 1,21-28)
In other words: “Keep away from us; you’re only going to bring us trouble.” The man just wants to be left alone. Even in the synagogue he wants to be left alone. Even if Jesus is from God, the man just wants to be alone. “Get away from us!” he says.
That strong reaction to Jesus was not limited to the synagogue in Capernaum. It continued as he made his way to Jerusalem. The rejection was sometimes strong, sometimes people just ignored him. Mark see that rejection as diabolic.
No matter how wise his teaching, how compassionate his healing, how loving his words, Jesus was rejected. In the end, his enemies killed him.
We believe the gospel repeats itself, and so it’s repeated today as we hear it. “If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.” Can we reject Jesus too? As we sit in our synagogue today, do we reject him in signs of his presence and in faith?
Belief in Jesus Christ is at the heart of everything. “I believe in God, the Father Almighty…I believe in Jesus Christ…I believe in the Holy Spirit.” Believing means hearing Jesus, listening to him, offering ourselves to him, entering into friendship with him, hoping in his strength, waiting patiently to receive what he promises.
Believing is not something we do occasionally; we believe day by day. There’s always the danger of losing faith in him. “Leave us alone,” we say, “You want to destroy us.” We can prefer isolation to communion with the One God has sent.
So maybe an unclean spirit is not rare at all. Maybe we could call it that cloudy, dark spirit that can take hold of us, so we don’t see the light. Deliver us, Lord, from an unclean spirit.
Rejection of Jesus was not unusual in his day, as the gospel of Mark reminds us, and it’s not unusual today. Today, however, it’s influenced by some different factors.
For example, our western world resists the idea of Jesus as a unique Savior and Teacher. We live in a pluralistic society, and so when we say Jesus is a unique Savior and Teacher, we seem to deny the truth in other religions and religious teachers.
What about the Dalai Lama? What about Buddhism, Hinduism, the religion of native Americans? Don’t they teach the truth? When you claim that Jesus is unique, do we deny there’s truth in other religions and religious teachers?
In answer to that, we can say that we believe a human search for God goes on from the beginning of the human race. The human spirit is always searching for God and its search has been blessed by wisdom and spiritual insight. So other religions religions have been blessed with truth.
But the uniqueness of Jesus comes from the fact that God approaches us. He sends us his Son. Jesus is his Word to us. His revelation is something we couldn’t arrive at on our own. We didn’t earn it. “This is my beloved Son, hear him,” God says from the heavens when Jesus is baptized. God takes the initiative and calls us into friendship with him, eternal friendship. It’s a promise beyond what we could dream of.
And Jesus not only promises new life, but he takes away what hinders us from enjoying a life with God. He takes away sin. He took away the unclean spirit that was there in the man in the synagogue.
I think there are other factors today that contribute to the rejection of Jesus, particularly in our western world. We’re proud of our individuality and there’s a fear following Jesus causes us to lose our own personalities and dreams. Jesus will take over our lives and impose on us a mold of his own. We don’t like losing our individuality–not at all.
There’s a fear too that a code of morality will be imposed on us that will deaden our lives and make us scared to love and to live. For many Christianity appears to be a religion of cold moralism, but it isn’t.
The man in the synagogue with the unclean spirit may not be too far from us, then. “Be quiet! Come out of him!” Jesus cried out. We may need that healing ourselves.