The Unclean Spirit of Already Knowing Everything
[Jesus and his disciples] went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried 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.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.
You’re familiar with Aristotle, right? He was a philosopher – someone dedicate to thinking about and explaining life’s truths. He was brilliant and he studied all the -omy’s, -ophy’s, -aphy’s, and -ology’s (that is, anatomy, astronomy, geography, geology, meterology, zoology, philosophy, and so on).
He was so smart that people claimed Aristotle had learned everything there was to be known.
Aristotle made many claims about physics (i.e., the laws of nature). One of the things Aristotle taught was this principle: the heavier an object, the faster it would fall to earth (meaning, an item twice as heavy as another item would fall twice as fast). For centuries people were confident he was right. Aristotle was regarded as the greatest thinker of all time, and surely he would not be wrong. After all, this truth is plainly evident.
For nearly 2,000 years after Aristotle's death, his theory went unchecked… until a scientist by the name of Galileo came on the scene and started thinking differently. He posited the theory of constant acceleration – that all objects dropped from the same height, regardless of their mass, accelerate towards earth at the same speed and will impact earth at the same time.
It was an audacious claim. Everyone knows if you drop a brick and a feather at the same time from the same distance, the brick will hit first. Who was Galileo, this ivory tower elite, to challenge a widely-held truth about the nature of the universe?
Legend has it that in 1589 Galileo summoned professors from the University of Pisa to the base of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Then he went to the top and pushed off a ten-pound and a one-pound weight. Both landed at the same time. The professors' power of belief was so strong, however, that many professors denied what they had just witnessed. They continued to say Aristotle was right.
I believe that this illustrates one of the truths of humanity - that our assumptions, preconceived notions, and established routines influence our behavior more so than demonstrable facts.
Galileo’s insights into physics were eventually embraced. Here’s one unique experiment that proves the principle. It’s a clip from the 1971 Apollo 15 space mission:
Just before the clip I said “Galileo’s insights into physics were eventually embraced;” however, if you need more evidence that people have a hard time allowing facts to influence their assumptions, preconceived notions, and established routines, just check out the comments on its YouTube page. It’s full of flat-earthers, fake moon landing conspiracists, and people who continue to say Aristotle is obviously right and Galileo is obviously wrong.
I doubt anyone here thinks that all the wisdom and truth of our universe has been already discovered or revealed. We all have much still to learn.
But when new truths arise they often fly in the face of convention. Each one of us does or believes something that we know is wrong, but our pattern of behavior is difficult to overcome. No new information about diet or exercise can convince most of us to get rid of all that processed junk food in our shopping carts and pantries nor convince us to hit the recommended minutes of exercise each day. Just knowing that things are true or important doesn't usually translate into new actions.
And because we're all like this, it means each one of us regularly comes up against people who refuse to allow new truths to change their behaviors and attitudes. Like Galileo, we can employ science and mathematics to prove things are true. But, as Galileo discovered, even with the authority of obvious visible proof, most people are going to believe what they have always believed, regardless of the facts.
From numerous Gospel texts, particularly today’s, we see that this mentality drove Jesus crazy. Today’s lesson from Mark illustrates how sometimes tradition needs to take a backseat to new relationships, new ideas, and unexpected sources of power.
In today’s passage, Jesus is teaching in the synagogue. Synagogues were places where scribes would instruct the Jewish people in the laws and traditions of the faith. When Jesus began to teach there, the people in the synagogue expected a traditional message; they wanted to have their beliefs reinforced so that they could leave feeling good. Or, if something new and interesting would be taught, it had to fit nicely into their current worldview.
But on this day, when Jesus starts to talk, the scribes are “astounded.” The dictionary definition is “filled with bewilderment.” They were hearing something that defied their expectations and assumptions; it was a complete break with the tradition.
While Jesus is teaching, a scribe with an unclean spirit comes forward and hisses, “Have you come here to destroy us?” Now, there is debate about whether this unclean spirit is an actual demonic being, or a man suffering from a mental disorder. But there is a compelling case to be made that this scribe with an unclean spirit is a representation of the unclean spirit of all temple scribes in that time – people whose identity is so closely tied to the traditions of the church, that they sees any deviation from the norm as a threat to their safety, security, influence, and well-being.
After all, traditions are established as a way to preserve our power. Surely we can look at our own culture and recognize how we react out of fear towards anything that appears to threaten our traditions or preconceived understandings.
We confront with anger that which we do not know. We get defensive when our traditions are threatened. Our challenge is to not be complacent or satisfied with our traditions.
To these fears, Jesus says: “Unclean spirit, get out! Get over yourself. Things have changed. Your tradition isn’t going to cut it any longer.” Jesus insists he has not come to destroy us, but rather to lead us to something greater than ourselves – something greater beyond the walls within which we’ve isolated ourselves.
People who claim to be followers of Jesus must let His word act with force in our lives.
Jesus calls us to give up what makes us comfortable. Jesus calls us to confront the lies we tell ourselves because we fear the truth will make us change. Jesus calls us to open our eyes to the suffering of our neighbors. And Jesus calls us to let Him guide our actions and institutions, strategic plans and mission statements.
A church that professes to follow Jesus should always be evaluating, adjusting, challenging, and pushing up against our assumptions that are generally more informed by culture than our faith in a God of infinite grace, abundance, and love. The church walls should never serve to keep people out and preserve existing power structures.
Christ’s global church exists in order to proclaim the word of grace that God is here, right now, within your neighbor and within you; showing you the way to something greater – God’s kingdom. This word of grace has power. It has the power to work miracles. And it has the power to cast out unclean spirits in your life. This word will guide you to help others and it will put you on the front lines of the battle between good and evil; justice and inequality.
May you be influenced more by facts than safe traditions unchecked by truths both ancient and emerging. May you greet challenges to your assumptions as opportunities for growth and wonderment. May you be someone who is filled with awe when you hear Jesus’ words. May you live as someone who understands that God’s authority may demand that walls of tradition come tumbling down when God chooses to act and do a new thing.
It can be a frightening prospect to give up the comfortable, but it is the only way to fully open ourselves up to the new and wonderful thing God is doing in our midst.