Epiphany 4, Year B
February 1, 2015
When reflecting on today's gospel, it helps to set the scene. A "synagogue" has gathered in the village of Capernaum, on the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee—pretty far from the spiritual capital city of Jerusalem. At the time, a "synagogue" wasn't a public building—just a village assembly for prayer, for reading the Scriptures aloud, and for teachings based on those Scriptures. At the time, you didn't need some official status like "rabbi" to teach in the synagogue. You just needed enough literacy and learning to speak about the text at hand.
I love picturing this scene: an outdoor gathering, maybe on the edge of the Galilean lake, where you don't expect too much formality, centralization, or authority. But it's the perfect place for God to confront his people with his power to act at a deep level in their lives, and to engage whatever powerful forces hold them captive.
The people attending the synagogue meeting on that sabbath day contrast Jesus' way of teaching with the way that the scribes teach. If we take a pretty broad definition of "scribes," we can see that they exercised their religious power in two main ways: First, by quoting Scriptures; and second, by upholding ritual practice. As scholars of their sacred texts and religious law, scribes loved to quote the documents they cherished and knew so well. They also quoted other teachers in the same tradition. The scribes were trained in the authority of making apt quotations, and using quotations from one place in the Scriptures to illuminate yet other quotations.
As far as ritual goes, the scribes were to some degree representatives of the priestly rulers in Jerusalem. The temple in Jerusalem was the place that performed and regulated ritual sacrifice according to the patterns laid out in the Scriptures.
But Jesus' so-called "teaching" and his dramatic casting-out of an unclean spirit (or demon) don't rely on the power to quote Scriptures or the power to perform rituals. Jesus' so-called "teaching" encompasses healing and freeing the people around him, not hurling Scriptural citations at them. And the exorcism performed by Jesus doesn't include formulaic words or choreographed gestures. Jesus just shuts the demon up and drives it out.
This power and authority of Jesus confronts us right here in the middle of worship on our holy day—right in between hearing passages of Scripture and lifting up our Eucharistic Prayer. Right here, Jesus invites us to ask: Is God's power at work at the deepest levels of our lives? Does God's power engage whatever powerful forces hold us captive?
The "unclean spirit" in today's gospel tells us something about the power that God is up against. This power starts outside of people, works its way in, and refuses to leave. This power can't be talked or coaxed out; it has to be cast out. And it leaves only after a physical struggle that leaves us shaking, and it leaves with lots of shouting and crying.
Perhaps this power that God is up against starts as an experience of oppression or discrimination—especially an experience that gets repeated. It seeps in through our skin from the outside circumstances and hostilities in our lives. And maybe it sinks down to our subconscious, rearing its head from time to time to whisper disparaging and destructive things, and to convince us that we'll never be worthy or free.
Perhaps this power that God is up against is like a deep and consuming depression that comes at us from painful incidents or from a particular mix of our chemistry. People may try to snap it out of us with a series of inspirational quotes, but it won't shake loose.
Perhaps this power that God is up against is a seemingly material circumstance, like poverty. People may ask us to claw our way out with education, hard work, and frugal living; but those opportunities escape our grasp or simply don't give us enough to hold onto. The demon holds on tight for another day, another year—or for several more generations.
Each of us knows some power that God is up against. But do we feel God working at this deep level in our lives, engaging the powers that hold us captive? Is God at work in our lives and in our world, freeing people from the inside out? Like the inferior powers of the scribes, our Scriptures and our sacraments aren't authorities in and of themselves. Our Scriptures and our sacraments are authorities if they connects us with the God whose power can wrangle with these types of demons.
Connecting with this power of God isn't easy, even when we listen to and speak powerful words in our worship. I have my own uncertainties about how to connect with a God powerful enough to uproot and overthrow those forces that imprison and possess human beings so thoroughly. After all, I'm basically just a scribe. Demons don't really listen to me.
But I do have some ideas for connecting more closely with a God of power and authority over our oppressive world, and over the depths of our souls. The first idea is simply to look at others the way that Jesus viewed the man with the unclean spirit. Jesus saw this person as separable from the forces that oppressed and possessed him. Can we see people the same way? We can strive to see them as Jesus does—loving them and desiring their freedom, no matter what demons try to distract our vision.
Another idea for connecting with God's power is to seek silence. In fact, Jesus orders the unclean spirit to "Be silent, and come out of him!" In the spiritual life, silence is much more than just some kind of mental control. It's a prayerful practice, but ultimately it's a gift and a grace. I know how a prayer of silence can at least loosen the hold of our internal voices, our damaging scripts, our deep-seated prejudices, and our frenetic impulses.
Mostly, though, it seems that we just need to show up and open ourselves if we want to meet the God of power. After all, the man with the unclean spirit just showed up at the synagogue gathering, and Jesus found him there.
In any gathering of God's people, there are so, so many of us contending with powers that don't want to let us go. Sometimes the best we can do is to keep gathering here. Sometimes the best we can do is meet together here, finding our strength in the presence of a power that wants to confront our demons and fight for us.