Preaching: Mark 1:29-39 Part 2
Supper is over. The sun is setting. Drowsiness settles in with the night, but before Jesus can fall asleep, people start bringing to the door the sick and those possessed by demons.
Mark's observation of sundown is not peripheral to the story for the evangelist never wastes a word. There is an intense compression of language in Mark's gospel so that anytime he makes room for a detail it is worth our attention.
The ancients believed that night was the time when spirits and demons were especially active. Although we can assume that moonlight, stars and lamps sprinkle a few shards of light on the scene, night prevails. Jesus moves through the darkness, tending to those who suffer and casting out the demons. No sooner has he driven them from their victims than he silences them.
Jesus' refusal to let them speak is an early appearance of a motif that will return again and again in Mark's gospel: Jesus' messiahship is a secret, not to be announced prematurely. The silencing of the demons is also filled with other evocations, with dangers and fears that rumble beneath the scene, not named by the reticent Mark but alive in us.
Jesus would be unable to cast demons out of others if he himself were not acquainted with demons. Jesus, I am convinced, was not like those preachers who, unaware of the demons within their own souls, leave a congregation feeling attacked rather than exorcised. There must have been in Jesus something about his whole manner of being that suggested he knew the shadowed side of life, its enigmas and ambiguities, the storms that sweep the human soul, the disruptive powers that lurk within all of us. It was partly what attracted "the whole city." They intuited that Jesus was in touch with his humanity.
Some critics might dismiss such a reading of the text as too subjective, too much a projection of the interpreter upon the gospel. I, however, understand this approach as a pastoral reading of the text, a reading that comes from the experience of ministering rather than treating the text as a reified object. It emerges from a candid acknowledgement of the depths of our own humanity, and how those depths resonate with the gospel stories about demons.
Viewed from this pastoral perspective, Jesus silences the demons, not only to keep his messiahship secret, but because he is called that night to heal others rather than to struggle with the demons himself. Care givers of every kind frequently face a similar situation when dealing with people who are possessed by grief or fear or terror that will not let them go. The urgency of the other's need awakens our need. The demons in another stir the demons in us. Effective care of someone else requires that we, for the time being at least, silence the demons so that we do not burden those who come to us with the very burden from which they are seeking relief.
This does not mean that Jesus never comes to terms with the night and the demons in himself. There is a hint in the text, whether or not Mark intended it, that Jesus realizes the work he needs to do with his own demons. "In the morning, while it was still very dark, [Jesus] got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed" (Mk 1: 35). Notice that it is "still very dark" when Jesus gets out of bed. The night during which Jesus has cast demons out of others now shadows his private prayer. He does not avoid the dark, but rises to pray in the dark before sunrise.
What does Jesus pray for in this deserted place? We do not know, yet in the context of Mark's narrative and Jesus' power to restore fractured and disturbed minds, it is not unreasonable to speculate that part of his prayer involves coming to terms with his own demons. Amidst the crowd who needed him, he had to silence the demons, but now alone in the dark Jesus can tend to his own need. He can argue back with those internal voices that seek to disrupt his own wholeness, to cast doubt on his ministry. Jesus struggles as fiercely in prayer at the start of his ministry as he later will in Gethsemane (Mk 14: 32-42). Then, having had that time of prayer, Jesus is renewed and ready to tend once again to others: "And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons" (Mk 1: 39).
God knows there are enough demons in others in this world that need to be cast out: demons of racism and nationalism, sexism and violence, hatred and bigotry. Still I wonder what would happen if we took time through prayer to deal with the demons in ourselves. Would we more faithfully follow Jesus, bringing wholeness to others because by the grace of God we had faced the fierce powers that trouble our own souls?
Iliff School of theology