"No Room for Demons" A Reflection for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, Year B
In the gospels of the past three weeks after Epiphany, Jesus has been starting his public life. The messages have been about meeting Jesus, being open to him, listening to him… following him. With that in mind, what do we make of this very short, very curious gospel? Jesus amazes a small-town crowd with his wisdom. They are confused by the brilliance coming out of this carpenter. But the evil spirit living among them isn’t confused. The demon recognizes Jesus immediately… and in terror, it proclaims him: The Holy One of God. How ironic that of all those who were there, it was the unclean spirit who saw Jesus for who he was. Jesus responds by driving the evil spirit out of the man. And the crowd is stunned. Who is this guy? By what power can he literally scare the devil out of people? That is exactly the wonderment that Jesus wanted to produce. We are in the first chapter of Mark. And right upfront, he is telling us where he stands. He is not a prophet. He is not a scholar. He is not here to impress. He is here to save. As Mark tells us: They were astonished at his doctrine: for he taught them as one that had authority, and not as the scribes.
Reflecting on the significance of this passage, C.S. Lewis writes: “The things Jesus tells us are very different from what any other teacher has said. Others say, ‘This is the truth about the Universe. This is the way you ought to go.’ But he says: ‘I am the Truth, and the Way and the Life… No man can reach absolute reality, except through me… Your sins, all of them are wiped out. I can do that. I am Re-birth… Eat me. Drink me. I am your food… do not be afraid, I have overcome the whole Universe.” To demonstrate his authority, Jesus drives out the unclean spirit… not by performing a ritual exorcism… but by simply telling the demon to shut up and get out. Jesus does not invoke a higher power… because he is the highest power. We have the benefit of two-thousand years of Christian tradition. Yet many of us still struggle with the divinity of Jesus. Imagine the folks in Capernaum getting hit with it in real-time, one-on-one, up-close, and personal. They are amazed. They are confused. And not all of them are happy. The concept of demonic possession and exorcism has always been difficult for me to relate to. I probably saw too many low-budget exorcist movies when I was a kid. But I have no trouble coming to grips with the fact that Satan stalks the world and evil flourishes around us… and too often, in us. The struggle with garden-variety inner-demons is very much closer to home. Start with the demon of addiction… the one we invite in to ease the pain, to pass the time, to fill a void. It comes in every form… from prescription drugs to single-malt Scotch… from gambling to pornography… from jelly donuts to ice cream. But whatever the form, we can easily become slaves to these demons… whether as genteel, high-functioning addicts or derelict “junkies” and everything in between. Yet as virulent as they are, addictions are not the most difficult demons to confront. They are so debilitating they make themselves obvious. They invite intervention. Demon pride is much more insidious. And we’ve all got a potentially deadly dose. It comes in a multitude of strains. There’s the “smartest guy in the room” variety… AKA “the know it all.” There’s the “resume-mouth” demon that drives us to impress. There’s the “snob” and its evil twin “envy”… both constantly appraising and comparing… finding fault, spreading malice. The demons are legion. But the underlying pathology is always the same: Pride is the soil that nurtures all other sin. It was Lucifer’s downfall. It was the curse of Adam and Eve. In Hell, it is still the specialty of the house. St. Vincent said: “Humility is nothing but truth, pride is nothing but lying.” A humble life is a happy life. A proud life is a tortured life. Pride and grace cannot occupy the same space. One or the other must go. But humility is not an end in itself. It is a manifestation of a soul at peace, filled with the love of Christ. As he amply demonstrates in this gospel, Jesus has the power to purge every one of our demons. If we have faith… if we ask him… Jesus will tell all our demons to shut up and get out. And so, we pray: Jesus Christ, my Lord, and my God, fill us with your love. Fill us to overflowing. Leave no room for demons. Only you, Lord. Only you.