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“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.” The anonymous gospel-storyteller that we call Mark, puts these words into the mouth of Jesus, and now we have to deal with them; or do we? I’ve been struggling all week with today’s assigned gospel reading. I was sorely tempted to change the reading. I usually only put our Contemporary readings in the service bulletins. But, let me confess, the only reason I put the full text of today’s reading in the bulletin, was to ensure that I didn’t cop out and change the readings. If it’s in the bulletin for everyone to see, we have to use it and I can’t just ignore it.
I remember, a few years ago, running into an old friend from high school, who was surprised to discover that I had become a pastor. He said to me something like, “you always seemed to have your head screwed on back in the day. How can you stand all that hocus pocus and mumbo jumbo?” His words have haunted me as I’ve struggled to figure out what to do with this text.
Hocus pocus and mumbo jumbo indeed! The dictionary defines hocus pocus as “meaningless talk or activity, often designed to draw attention away from and disguise what is actually happening. Hocus pocus actually came into usage in English from a Latin phrase that would have been familiar to everyone who has ever heard the Mass in Latin: Hoc est corpus meum which means “This is my body.”
According to the dictionary, mumbo jumbo is defined as: “language or ritual causing or intended to cause confusion or bewilderment.” Or: “words or activities that are unnecessarily complicated or mysterious and seem meaningless”
The anonymous gospel-storyteller’s tale of Jesus preforming what sounds very much like an exorcism certainly seem meaningless to our 21st century minds. Last week, after I we did a bible study instead of a sermon, one of you commented that they never see any of the stuff I pointed out, when they read the bible by themselves, that’s why they don’t read the bible anymore. “It’s too complicated! I don’t know the history, so it just confuses me.” So, when I started preparing today’s sermon, I thought here we go again, more complicate and misleading words. What hocus pocus must I preform to reveal the body of Christ to the body of Christ? What am I supposed to do with this unclean spirit? I was so tempted to just exorcise this demon from our worship. Sure, I could find all sorts of commentaries and sermons that went on and on explaining away this unclean spirit as some sort of victim of “mental illness.” Which when you think about, this is one way to deal with the reality that most of us, dare I say all of us, don’t really believe in demonic possession and don’t want to have anything much to do with someone who goes around the country preforming exorcisms. Twenty-first century, Canadian followers of Jesus tend to ignore the first century stories about demons and exorcisms.
As tempting as it is to explain the demon in this exorcism away as a suffer of mental illness, I’m not convinced that that helps us any. Because if the “unclean spirit” is mentally ill, then, the story asks us to believe that Jesus had the power to heal the mentally ill simply by commanding the illness to “Be silent and come out.” OK, we all know that that can’t happen, right?
So, in the spirit of the great New Testament scholar Marcus Borg, “why did the writer of this text tell this story the way he told this story.” What was the anonymous gospel-storyteller that we call Mark trying to say to his first century audience? We all know by now that there’s usually lots going on between the lines of the gospel texts. The stuff between the lines is what keeps people like me employed. It is after all my job to read between the lines. So, let’s move beyond the words on the page and venture beyond the literal to see what we can discover in the more-than-literal interpretation of this text. Continue reading