What do we mean when we talk about demons and possession? As is often the case with me, movies come to mind, two different movies.
First, a thriller. As the movie begins, a convicted killer is about to be executed. After his death more murders are discovered, and it soon becomes evident that this is no copycat. This is, somehow, the very same murderer who has already been executed. The evil that was in him has survived. The murderer was possessed by a demon, and the demon is still out there somewhere. (1)
Second, a grim story of addiction and its aftermath. A woman arrives home from a three-year stint in prison for felony theft, because “from the age of 16 to 22 heroin was the love of [her] life.” Though she has been clean for two years, she finds re-entry into the world challenging, bordering on the impossible. Particularly difficult are her efforts to re-establish her relationship with her young daughter. As she encounters frustrations and setbacks, the temptation to escape back into her addiction is overwhelming. At last, she finds a dealer and succumbs. We see her shooting up in a hotel room, and we know that, despite her best intentions and her honest and deep desire to create a better life for herself and her daughter, addiction still has her in its grip. (2)
What do we mean when we talk about demons and possession? On the one hand, we could be talking about supernatural beings whose intentions towards us humans are malicious. This seems to be how Jesus experienced them. In his day, in a pre-scientific world, no one doubted either the existence of demons or their power. Demons, what are called in the gospel “unclean spirits,” were believed to be stronger than people; they could enter them, and dominate them, and completely take over their personalities and behavior.
On the other hand… Have you ever had a front-row seat for an addiction, your own or someone else’s? How we behave when we’re in the grip of addiction looks and sounds very much like the descriptions of people who are possessed. Addicts know that the addiction, the substance, is powerful, more powerful than we are. Addictions are stronger than people; they can enter us, and dominate us, and completely take over our personalities and behavior.
Or how about this: Do you know what it feels like to not be able to stop doing something you know is not good, something that might actually be destructive, or hurtful? Do you know what it feels like, for example, to not be able to extricate yourself from an argument, even though you have a tiny sense somewhere that you might even be… wrong? There you are, and you’re talking to (or yelling at) someone you love, and all the words that come out of your mouth seem to have been put there by an evil spirit of some kind, and you wish that someone would shake you so that you can just stop! Anyone ever felt that way, done that thing? Maybe it’s just me. Or… How about this: how about… eating something you know you shouldn’t? And you just… can’t… stop! Been there, done that! Or, I don’t know, surfing the web when you’re supposed to be working, or spending time on TV that is neither educational nor even enlightening… just one more news item… just one more tidbit about Caroline Kennedy, and then I promise… but the hours go by. In each of these examples from my very own life, I have a terrible and disappointing sense that… this is not who I want to be. “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” (Romans 7:15). Why can’t I be the person I want to be? What have you to do with me, demons?
What do we mean when we talk about demons and possession? Do we mean all of these? Some of these? One of these? None of these?
Into a scene where demons are present, walks Jesus.
Or, maybe I have that backwards.
Maybe, into a scene where Jesus is teaching, walk the demons.
It is so tempting in this passage to focus on the demons, the supernatural occurrence. I have obviously succumbed to this temptation. But look at where Mark is directing us: Mark wants to focus on Jesus, on his authority. “[Jesus] entered the synagogue and taught,” Mark tells us. “They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority…” I guess it’s unusual for people to show up on the sabbath, and have the startling experience that the preacher actually knows what he or she is talking about! The centerpiece of this scene, for the gospel storyteller, isn’t demons at all, either literal or figurative: it’s Jesus. The demons are… incidental.
But, you know, they don’t feel incidental, especially when you are in their grip. We all have our demons. I think that’s probably true. But what do we do about it? What happens in the story?
In the story, the demons see Jesus and name him, because he scares them. They say to him something like, “This town isn’t big enough for both of us, Jesus of Nazareth.” and they are absolutely, 100% right about that. This town… this person…this life is not big enough for both Jesus and the demons that haunt us.
What to do? How do we go about the challenging, sometimes seemingly impossible task of learning a better way of life, of stopping being controlled by the demons that possess us? The first step that we can take is to recognize that, as Jesus knew, the demon is powerful. More powerful than we are. In a sense, we have to give it its due, acknowledge that it’s been beating us down again and again. The second step, the one that occurs right in our passage, is the recognition that, though the demon is more powerful than we are, there is one who is more powerful than the demon, and that One is God. Remember the demons cry of distress: “Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are… the Holy One of God!” Jesus is the authority. God is all-powerful. The next step becomes obvious: we entrust our lives, get on the team, of the One who is powerful. At that point, it’s just logic.
We all have our demons, whether they are the kind Jesus cast out, or the kind responsive to programs of recovery, or the kind that just annoy the daylights out of us. In a way this last kind is the most insidious, the most frustrating, because—there’s no diagnosis, there are only long-standing destructive patterns of relating to other people and ourselves. I will step right to the front and acknowledge that I struggle with these kinds of demons pretty much every day. Every day they do something to trip me up, to make me less loving, more judgmental, less connected to the people who matter to me, more paranoid about my own petty little concerns. Time and again I find the answer to the problem, and it’s so simple: To recognize the demons for what they are, and how powerful they are. To try to remember to pray, to meditate on a psalm or a passage of scripture, and to open up my heart to the fact that, whether I remember it or not, God is. God is… out there, in here, in me, in you, all around us. God is… ready to hear us, ready to help us, ready to instill us with the peace that passes understanding, or at least enough of it to get through a tense meeting with the guidance counselor or an encounter with a state trooper who wants to write me a speeding ticket.
This town, this life, this body isn’t big enough for both Jesus and the demons that possess us. Only one can be in charge. Only one can offer freedom. Only one can offer healing, relief. Only one can truly be with us, every minute, ready to light and guard, to rule and guide us through all the minefields that life has to offer us. Only one can do all this. May we all find that one now. Thanks be to God. Amen.
(1) “Fallen” (1998) starring Denzel Washington. Rated R for violence and language.
(2) “SherryBaby” (2006) starring Maggie Gyllenhaal. Rated R for strong sexuality, nudity, language and drug content.