Sermon Ideas For Mark 1:29-39 Part 7
Healing. Driving out demons. How do we explain such phenomena? For explain them we shall, explain them away if possible. Such rationalizations of miracles are not a product of the Enlightenment. Some were attached to Jesus' story even before the writing of the gospels. (See, e.g., Matthew 28:12 and John 9:18, for how the gospel writers counter two different kinds of alternative explanations.)
Such rationalizations are not a product of the Enlightenment, but it may be fair to say they became a "cottage industry" thereafter. I am thinking particularly of David Friedrich Strauss's (justly) famous The Life of Jesus Critically Examined. Strauss begins his chapter on the "Miracles of Jesus," with a section called "The Demoniacs, Considered Generally." This will segue into the lengthier "Cases of the Expulsion of Demons by Jesus, Considered Singly." It may not have begun with Strauss, but the oft-heard explanation that demon-possession is just a quaint way of describing "the insane and epileptic" is certainly there.1
This way of explanation, taken to its illogical conclusion, produces a movie like Repossessed, a comedy—though he shouldn't watch it—only a 12-year old boy can appreciate. It's a kind of Naked Gun 2 meets The Exorcist, with Linda Blair, now all grown up, married and with 2.4 clean-cut kids, becoming "repossessed." Her voice deepens into a stereophonic belch. She becomes a wellspring of projectile vomiting. Duck! She is taken over by a demon so pusillanimous he can be exorcised by…Leslie Nielsen. Ned Beatty as a slimy televangelist and Linda Schwab as his wife, Fanny Rae look on. (Cameo by Jesse Ventura!) Possession is a joke. Evil rises no higher than a line beneath the title of a screwball comedy.
How different from the works of the trans-Alpine painters of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century, Dürer and Grünewald, Bosch and Brueghel the Elder, pre-Enlightenment types who may have considered evil grotesque but seemed compelled nevertheless to take it seriously. Consider particularly two often reproduced versions of The Temptation of St. Anthony, the c. 1480-90 engraving by Martin Schongauer and the panel from Grünewald's 1512-15 Isenheim Altarpiece.
Both are influenced by the way medieval Christianity equated beauty with God and ugliness with the devil. So Schongauer depicts God's saint with regular features, a quiet face but a strong one, expressive of the desert father's inner strength. This contrasts with the simultaneously edgy and stupid ugliness of his tormenters. These demons are thorny with feathers and scales and wings, sharp with talons, and rigged with snouts as long as the cudgels with which they beat poor Anthony. And they are real. "Schongauer's gift was to make this unnatural event plausible to his audience, such that if his monsters could actually be seen, walk abroad, or fly, they would have all the necessary anatomy or equipment to do so."2
If anything, Grünewald goes beyond Schongauer in both the ugliness of his demons and their reality, depicting "the surfaces of his monsters as symptoms of…various forms of [real] corruption."3 Beside the saint is a "companion" clearly suffering from, even rotting from, syphilis. This would have been the kind of affliction supplicants might bring to the altar at Isenheim, hoping for cure. But above the saint, in a golden sky, the Lord looks down; and from his throne stream luminous angels who will disperse these devils of disease and darkness.
Of course, in this first chapter of Mark's gospel Jesus is not the luminous Lord. The crowds marvel at his authority, because he looks no different to them from other teachers of the law (1:22). How is he different? He doesn't let the demons speak, because they know who he is (1:24, 29). He also knows who they are. That is, he is real to them; and they are real to him—not some cinematic joke.
"The Gospels imply," Rita Nakashima Brock has written, "that anyone who exorcises cannot be a stranger to demons…. To have faced our demons is never to forget their power to hurt…."4 To understand Jesus' authority requires acknowledging his humanness. Like us he has faced demons. And they are real—evil is real. They are powerful—evil is powerful. But to understand his authority also means acknowledging that he has overcome them. He "healed many who were sick with all kinds of diseases and drove out many demons."
Columbia Theological Seminary
1. David Friedrich Strauss, The Life of Jesus Critically Examined, ed. Peter C. Hodgson, trans. George Eliot (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1972), p. 416. (The translator is the nineteenth-century novelist!)
2. Albert Elsen, Purposes of Art: An Introduction to the History and Appreciation of Art, 2d ed. (New York: Holt, Rhinehart and Winston, 1967), p. 397.
3. Elsen, p. 397
4. Rita Nakashima Brock, Journeys by Heart: A Christology of Erotic Power (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1988), pp. 80-81.