The Teaching Exorcist
It is difficult to read today's gospel lesson without recalling the movie, The Exorcist. Several aspects of the movie stand out, particularly when the priest exorcist has the final encounter with the girl who needs the exorcism. But the image that has had staying power for me since I saw the movie is the demon's voice emanating from the girl when the priest enters the girl's bedroom. The demon curses the exorcist, recognizing him as one who recognizes the demon for who it is. The exorcist sees that the demon is not a part of the girl's true self. The exorcist knows that the powers of God are stronger than the powers of Satan. The exorcist knows that God tirelessly and victoriously pursues any power alienating humanity from the love of God. The demon sees all this and knows its residence in the girl's body and soul is time dated and then screams its expletives at the priest.
This same pattern exists in Jesus' exorcism of the man with an unclean spirit. The spirit cries out, "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." But Jesus rebukes him, saying, "Be silent and come out of him!" And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, comes out of him.
In today's gospel lesson, we see Jesus as Lord of all forces in the universe. Jesus is God-with-us, encountering our unclean spirits where we live, work, play, and worship. Jesus is God-with-us ordering our unclean spirits to be silent and to come out of us.
Perhaps the most astonishing aspect of this gospel story is not that there was an exorcism—astounding as that was. The attention-getter for me is that those who watched the exorcism that day in the synagogue did not describe the event as an exorcism. Scripture does not say, "They were amazed at the exorcism." Rather, those present referred to it, of all things, as "teaching." "They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, "What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him" (vs. 27). Teaching as exorcism. An exorcism called teaching. That is the surprise of the story.
Or is it?
When I think over the many teachers I have had through grammar, junior high, and high school, not to mention college and graduate schools, while I am grateful to each of those teachers for their patience, persistence and care, there are a handful who stand out above the rest. In fact one stands out in particular and in many ways, the characteristics which elevate her in my memory, are the characteristics portrayed in Jesus' activity in today's story. My most memorable teacher was an exorcist.
I would be misleading your thinking if you are imagining her as an aged sacerdotal priest, wearing black clericals, walking in the dark of night with mist swirling about her feet. Rather, she was a bright, young, and vibrant college English teacher with a gift with a passion, and with a goal.
Her gift was seeing what every memorable and transformative teacher can see—be it within the texts of student compositions or perceiving it in the give and take of classroom discussions. Memorable and transformative teachers can see the constant battle within each student between the true self and the false self The true self is that which bears the image of God, finds its home in having the mind of Christ, and manifests the creative leading of God’s Spirit. The false self is the distracted, pretentious persona of dead convention going through the motions of life alienated from his or her true vocation. Memorable and transformative teachers can see these two selves competing for ascendancy even when the student is unaware of there even being such a thing as a false self and a true self
My teacher's passion was to conduct a daily and loving search for the creative, unique life resident in each student. Her goal was to conduct a daily seek and destroy mission against everything that was false in her students so that the true, the creative, the life giving could more easily come to fruition.
I dreaded and yet deeply treasured receiving my assignments after she had graded them. Filled with red strike throughs, comments, questions, and even an occasional skull and cross bones, my teacher had performed and exorcism looking for my true self which she had seen expressed in embryonic form here and there.
No wonder the bystanders that Sabbath day long ago said to one another, "What is this? A new teaching!" Jesus was teaching the man with the unclean spirit. Jesus was also teaching the bystanders. But Jesus is also teaching you and me this morning. Jesus is teaching us that there is falseness within us which needs to be exorcised. When Jesus exorcises parts of our false self we are more liberated to manifest God's image within us, the creativity and freedom of the Spirit, and the compassionate service of Jesus himself in our world.
If we agree that transformative and liberating teaching is always to some degree an exorcism of our false self in order to more clearly show forth our true self, there remains a final but primary question: "From where does the power to exorcise emanate?" "What gives rise to the power to call out unclean spirits in order for the true spirit to be expressed?" I believe the answer lies in the comments made that Sabbath day in that synagogue long ago. "They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes" (vs. 22). "What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him" (vs. 27). The power to exorcise comes from Jesus' authority—and not the kind of authority the scribes possessed.
What was the difference in the authority of the scribes and the authority of Jesus? A. Irvine Robertson, in Lessons of the Gospel of St. Mark, says, "The scribes or professional expounders of the law were dry and unspiritual. The authority they claimed was derived from the old commentaries, called “the tradition of the elders,” much of whose teaching was useless and trifling, quite unfit to guide the conscience or satisfy their soul. Their teaching consisted mostly of quotations." Richardson Wright notes, "The scribes were copiers of the law, public secretaries ... They could quote but not create..."(A Sower Went Forth, pp 50 5 1). A mentor of mine once told me that it is possible to be so oriented to a book of rules, that one could walk off a cliff while memorizing them. The scribes were so oriented to the quotations of their elders that they missed the live and lively Tradition Incarnate who was bringing life and health to those who were possessed by the voices of death.
The authority of Jesus was different. The word, "authority" comes from the Greek word, “exousia,” meaning literally, "out of one's own being" or "out of one's true self." When one left the presence of the scribes one might ask, "Have I just been talking with a person or have I been talking to a book and a set of laws?" Not so Jesus. Where scribes conveyed quotations, Jesus conveyed God—and God alive within his own life—God experienced within his true self. Exousia can also be translated, "freedom”—freedom to act, freedom to be creative, freedom to heal. The English word, "authority," derives from the word, "author," which means the power to originate. Jesus' authority derived from his relationship with the Creator God, the Originator of all life and the Author of all healing.
So, where derives the authority to heal, to exorcise, to teach, to free? Healing authority comes from the alignment with the Author. Exorcising authority stems from living with the Author abiding within. The authority for liberating teaching springs from drinking deeply from the Author of all freedom and life
May all our living and all our teaching have the mark of this liberating and cleansing authority.
The Very Rev. J. Edwin Bacon
THE PROTESTANT HOUR