The Unclean Spirit
Father Hanly’s wonderful homily for 4th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B, is about Jesus and the man with the unclean spirit. We feel this is one of Father’s most important homilies, because, after introducing the scene, Father touches the heart of the meaning of this gospel and Jesus’s role in all our lives.
First Reading: Deuteronomy 18:15-20
Responsorial Psalm: Psalms 95:1-2, 6-7, 7-9
Second Reading: First Corinthians 7:32-35
Gospel: Mark 1:21-28
Today I’m wearing red in honour of the Chinese New Year. And, as I mentioned before, as you know, today is Chau Chat. That means that all of you are one year older today. The Chinese make you grow old fast.
It’s also a good time to read this kind of a gospel. As you know, we’re reading St Mark’s gospel. Very simple. Very direct. You have to pay attention to each little place because every place has a double meaning. And everything that he says is pared down to give you just one thought: that Jesus is the Messiah, Jesus is the Christos, the Christ, Jesus is the Holy One of God.
And then Mark will say to you after each episode, “Do you believe this?” He turns his back, in a way, and he says to you, “And I don’t care. I’m telling you what I saw. I’m telling you what I have come to believe. And I’m giving it to you without any frills.” So it’s called the no-frills gospel.
For the next four weeks, it’s in February now, the next four weeks we will have Mark leading us along. And all four Sundays have the same theme: the coming of the Kingdom of God.
The first thing that you must remember is that the Kingdom of God is not a place. The Kingdom of God is where God reigns.
And where God reigns is where the Kingdom of God is.
So the first place you look, of course, is in your own heart.
For Jesus when he comes he says, “The Kingdom of God is among you. The Kingdom of God is at the door. The Kingdom of God is within you.”
So Mark will give you, in these four weeks he’ll give you, four stories that, for him, out of the many, many, many incidents in Christ’s life, these four stories will be able to help you understand when Mark says the Kingdom of God, he means the Kingdom of God is Jesus himself. It is the presence of Jesus among us, the presence of the Christos, the Holy One of God, who walks with us as surely now as he did all those hundreds of years ago.
Today is the first reading. The first reading is, you have just finished it and, as you noticed, Jesus and his disciples come to Capernaum.
Now Capernaum is where Peter lives. And Peter, being a fisherman, he lives right on the coastline of the lake of Galilee. It’s called a sea, but it’s a very large lake. And Capernaum is a place that Jesus makes his main base for his time in Galilee.
You could split Mark’s gospel into two. There is the time in Galilee, and what he does, he preaches and teaches all around the Sea of Galilee. And then there is the time when he goes up to the north, and he sets himself on the long journeys in and around the northern part of Palestine and in other areas, and then the final journey is he sets his face to Jerusalem where he shall die and, on the third day, according to his promise, rise from the dead.
But we’re in Galilee. Galilee is close by to all the favourite places that other authors find after him and have much more to say, the other gospel writers. It is the place, just down the road from Capernaum is the mountain where Jesus himself gave the Sermon on the Mount. The Sea of Galilee, where all the great sea stories are told. The people gather around in the different villages and towns of Galilee, and they hear the word of Jesus which is the word of God.
So, today, we’re in Capernaum, the beginning of his Galilean expedition as it were.
He comes to Capernaum, a little fishing village, and is probably staying with Peter there. And whenever he’s in and around the Sea of Galilee he comes home with Peter to his house.
And at this time it’s the Sabbath day, and he enters the synagogue. As you know the synagogue is a house of prayer. There’s only one temple and it’s in Jerusalem, the place of worship of Yahweh, but the Jews gathered together each Saturday to pray as we do each Sunday in a church, or in a house, or if you’re Jewish, in a synagogue.
Our churches are based on the architecture of the temple and the synagogues. The synagogue is where they hear the word of the Old Testament and they hear all the old stories and they prayed the psalms and famous preachers come and preach.
Jesus must have been preaching around the area a little bit because he was invited as a guest preacher, an itinerant preacher, that nobody knew too much about but that he came from Nazareth which was about forty miles further south.
And so they were somewhat familiar and they also knew that he had a group of disciples with him already: Peter and Andrew, James and John, and some of the others.
If you go to Capernaum, you can see the outlines of the original town of Capernaum and you can also see they excavated two layers, well below the surface, and they came across perhaps the original synagogue in which Jesus spoke to the people on this day.
Mark says Jesus came to Capernaum on the Sabbath. He entered the synagogue and he taught.
And everybody is saying, “I wonder what he said.”
But Mark won’t tell you. Mark is not telling you what he said. Because for a very, for what would strike you at first as a strange reason, but later on you begin to understand.
You see the Kingdom of God is not a book. The Kingdom of God is not a series of lectures given by a famous rabbi. The Kingdom of God is a person.
And what people do are two things when they communicate the great truths of God. They teach it. And they live it.
So in Mark, right from the very beginning, he’s telling you not so much what he says. Watch what he does and you will understand that the Kingdom of God is among you.
Because, while we do a lot of teaching, it’s usually reserved for schools, synagogues, television, places where things are not really too important.
But if you want to know what the preacher believes in, and cares about, and loves, and what he does, you could listen to what he has to say, but, as everybody knows, actions speak much louder than words.
And Mark is that kind of a gospel.
Jesus goes from place to place, and every place he goes there’s a purpose for going there. And what he says, there’s a purpose for what he says there. But, most of all, what he does is what makes you fully understand and realize this is not the ordinary itinerant preacher that the people of Capernaum were blessed to hear that day.
Mark tells us that when he spoke they were astonished. It’s more important to know that the crowd was astonished than what Jesus said.
Why? Because Jesus is the Kingdom of God and when he spoke he spoke directly to heart. And he touched them and he moved them in ways that none of the ancient books and none of the old rabbis and none of the eloquent men in from Jerusalem all the way up to Capernaum ever spoke before.
And they just were in awe, because this was a man who spoke with authority.
What kind of authority?
Well, if you listen carefully to the first reading, it was an authority based on God speaking to Moses. Moses spoke for God. No-one else spoke for God except Moses. The people didn’t collect material and argue about what Moses said because what Moses said was from the mouth of God. From God’s heart to Moses’ mouth. And that was the message of the Old Testament.
And then when Moses was growing old, God said to him, “Moses, I will send someone with the same authority, who will come after me and he will be the Holy One.”
And so the people hungered and longed for the day that someone would come, who would speak with authority. He would speak with the head, yes, but, mostly, with the heart, and the two together. And people would listen and be astounded and wonder where he’d got these words.
And those who had read the Old Testament and the book of Deuteronomy they would know that God has fulfilled his promises and here stands Jesus.
Now one of the men, a sickly man, one they said with an unclean spirit. The word unclean means he was not allowed to go into the temple for some reason to pray but they accepted him in the back of the synagogue because he was a Jew.
Unclean sometimes is used when they’re talking about devil possession and many, many other ways of speaking about it.
But Mark lets you kind of understand that this was a man who was mentally upset, who was physically, perhaps, in need of curing, but, most of all, he was in fire with his own spirit. That there was a wrestling going on and, at times, he would shout out in the middle of the service and say these things.
And this was a telling thing to say that day for when he heard Jesus he was the only one who cried out and said, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know you are the Holy One of God.”
And everything quieted down. And Jesus went over to him. He didn’t yell at him, but he forbad him to speak and he said “Be quiet.” And then he says these words: “Come out of him.” And suddenly the man was thrown down to the ground. And he was kicking and screaming. And finally he was calmed down. And whatever it was within the unclean man with the unclean spirit had disappeared and a very great silence fell upon the crowd. And then the people said
All were amazed and all asked one another: “What is this? This is a new teaching with authority. He commands even the unclean spirits and they obey him.”
And this was his first visit to Capernaum’s synagogue.
But there’s something that Mark wants you to understand. He doesn’t want you to think that this man is possessed by some demon from outer space. He doesn’t want you to think that using the language of that time that this was something extraordinary coming down from heaven and inflicting this person.
He wants us to think that this man is us.
You see Mark always has this in his mind: I am not telling you stories. I’m telling you I’m confronting you with Christ himself. And he stands before this man distraught and torn and screaming and throwing to fits on the floor and totally disarranged. And he stands there with great kindness and great sympathy and great understanding. And he says, “Come out of him.”
Very often when we speak of disturbed people, we speak in the same language. We feel that people who are disturbed, including ourselves, are torn by loneliness, are depressed by the extravagant difficulty of living, and the terrible pain to have to endure even the slightest reaching out for help.
There are people whose minds are torn, whose emotions are falling apart. There are people who have felt distress and loneliness and the terrors of war and fear for their children and fears for their future. And they are just bundles of neurotic difficulties and tensions.
And Mark wants you to know that this man was such a man.
With what? What kind? Was he possessed by the devil? You say, “Yes.”
Was he torn by a childhood of distress and want and need and nothing ever satisfying? Yes.
Was he someone who was frightened, frightened to go out of his own house to walk among the people like a free man?
What was binding him? What was making him, even in his own heart, very unhappy? Even though he wanted to be happy, he just maybe didn’t know the trick.
What was tearing at his peace, the peace that God wanted to give him, the peace that God wanted to heal him with.
And then, all of a sudden, on this day, he’s in this place, the synagogue, and Jesus stands before him and says to all the demons flying around in his soul, “Be quiet and leave him.”
And then he becomes calm and quiet and at peace.
Now, this is the introduction of the Kingdom of God into the town of Galilee. This is the introduction of the one who will stand before us in those dreadful and difficult moments of our lives when we feel bereft of any hope of peace or future or past or present.
And it is he who has the power to say, “Be quiet. Leave him.”
And the life of God and the hope of God and the love of God will flood into him once again so that he can indeed become a human being.
So what Mark is saying is: When Jesus comes, it is God himself. And he brings with him the peace of God, the love of God, the forgiveness of God, the caring of God, the power of God, the strength of God.
And, this is what Jesus comes, and he comes not to give it with his hands, but to become one with this man: one in spirit, one, later, even in body. One with him as he is one with us today.
And what Mark, every time he goes to mass in those early days, I am sure, when he is with a group, he will recall the time that the real meaning of why we are gathered together is because we know our need for God and we know that no matter what happens to us, what kind of circumstances we find ourselves, we know that God is with us to heal us, to fill us with new courage, new strength, and, most of all, the way of his life, the way of love.