Demons?

February 1, 2015
Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
Epiphany 4B (RCL)
Deuteronomy18:15-20
Psalm 111
1 Corinthians 8:1-13
Mark 1:21-28

This reading from Mark’s Gospel is abrupt, as always. Jesus’ first public act is to enter the synagogue in Capernaum on a sabbath and to begin teaching. Mark doesn’t tell us the content of the teaching, but tells us that everyone recognized that teaching as authoritative. Even the demon immediately recognized the authority of Jesus’ words. When Luke tells the story of Jesus’ first sermon in a synagogue, he gives us the passage from Isaiah from which Jesus preaches and Jesus’ sermon. Why would Mark not tell us what Jesus said?

I think Mark leaves us hanging in order to leave a question in our mind as we read the Gospel. What is Jesus’ authority and where does it come from? Clearly, he has the authority to command demons. But what role do demons serve in Mark’s Gospel. The most significant demon we encounter in Mark is the Gerasene demoniac, who was living among the tombs. The demon’s name was Legion, or perhaps better, Battalion. And just like Pharaoh’s army, the Battalion was drowned in the sea, in a herd of pigs. People in Galilee would have been raising pigs for only one reason — to sell to the Roman army. The Roman occupation had destroyed the social fabric of the region, making faithful response to God’s covenant impossible. This demonic presence was in the synagogue as well.

Paul’s advice to the “strong” Corinthians concerning eating meat suggests the extent to which the Roman occupation modified social institutions. The only meat available to eat came from sacrifices, and for Jews in diaspora, it would have been impossible to eat meat, because it had been sacrificed at the temple of a Greco-Roman god. Interestingly, because the “strong” Corinthians are arguing that those gods have no real existence anyway, and therefore they could eat the meat, Paul does not argue against meat-eating on the basis of the gods being demons. Instead, he bases his argument on the interconnection of all Christians to one another. Just like the argument about not consorting with prostitutes, because it implicates the whole Body of Christ in the act, so one should not eat meat, because it implicates all of one’s brothers and sisters in the worship of these non-gods.

This raises the question for us: what are the demons present in our own church? What are the oppressive systems in which we are implicated? Ultimately, I think, we are implicated in the kind of thinking Paul calls out in the “strong” Corinthians; the thinking that we can act independently of everyone else. We can drive the kind of car we want to drive, and it has no effect on anyone else. I can go to the grocery store and buy fresh fruit from Chile in the middle of winter, just because I can, and it has no effect on anyone else. I can send my kids to good schools and don’t need to worry about anyone else’s kids. I don’t have to get to know my neighbors.

And where that leaves us is with a social fabric that is fraying badly. So, if someone showed up and started teaching us how to restore that social fabric, in powerful and dramatic ways, we might say this was someone with authority. If it became clear that paying attention to our neighbors turned out in the long run to be good for all, we might begin to shift our way of thinking. We might be shocked, and want to know what this teaching had to do with us, but if we were empowered to restore the social fabric that holds us all together, we might think the kingdom was arriving.

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