Dealing with Evil

Darth Vader helmet with hello kitty paited on
Photo credit: <a href="">JD Hancock</a>

Mark 1: 21-28

On they went to Capernaum where, on the holy day, they went to church. And he started teaching. People were captivated with what he had to say because he had real conviction about it, rather than just droning on like the clergy. Right away, though, a person with an evil spirit started yelling: “You’ve got nothing to do with us, Jesus of Nowheresville. You’ve come here to wreck our church, haven’t you, you holier-than-thou-think-you’re-a-big-shot!”

But Jesus said, “Shut up and get out of here!” And the evil one left, shaking his fists and screaming obscenities all the way out the door.

Everyone was unsettled, whispering among themselves, saying, “How’d he do that? That took cojones! He even tells the s-o-bs where to get off – and they do!” And so he began to be famous around the region.

[See also, previous comments on this passage.]

We don’t like to think about evil much. In this day and age, we like to say evil is such an old-fashioned idea. People aren’t evil. They’re just “troubled,” or “insensitive,” or perhaps even, “selfish,” “boorish,” or “annoying.” Maybe we say they just “need to be educated.” And besides, “there’s good and bad in everyone, right?”

We especially don’t like to think about people with evil spirits in churches. After all, aren’t churches supposed to be where you can go to get away from evil. Aren’t they supposed to be full of good people? Churches especially (and I’d guess that Christian churches aren’t the only communities so afflicted), though tend to attract people with evil spirits.

But here it is, “a person with an evil spirit.” Granted, Mark doesn’t say “an evil person.” There’s no way of getting around it. Mark doesn’t say “a person who was having a bad day,” or “a person who needed educated.” Mark says an evil spirit. Here is a congregation with evil in their midst. When Jesus arrives on the scene, it has to be dealt with before anything else can happen.

There’s a reason the evil is couched in terms of possession. The man with the evil spirit is not objecting to any specific teaching of Jesus. It’s not a doctrinal dispute. It’s about Jesus’ presence threatening to remove the congregation from his possession. “You’ve got nothing to do with us. You’ve come to wreck our church.” The church is already a wreck, but at least it’s his wreck to have and to hold. So long as it is possessed by and belongs to him, so long as he is in control, it really doesn’t matter what gets taught. So long as the clergy drone on and on without moving the people to act any differently, everything’s ok. When people start to be captivated by someone or something else, when the possessors lose their grip on their possessions, that’s when all hell breaks loose.

What is particularly evil, at least as evil is encountered here, is when people (and worse, entire congregations of people) are considered something to be possessed. Churches, and all kinds of communities, can weather all kinds of differences of opinion and live with members holding contradicting doctrinal, and political, positions. What destroys them is one person (or a group – but such groups tend to resolve to only one or two persons) pulls all the strings.

For all the talk about harmony that churches use to cover up and get along with that kind of evil, Jesus won’t tolerate it. The evil has got to go. Otherwise they soon find that, at best they can’t do what they’re called to do, and at worst congregational life becomes a living hell.

[Bonus: One might ask where Jesus got the ability to evict the evil spirit. Answer: by moving the people with a greater captivating vision first.]

[A word of caution: Pastors looking at these remarks with an eye to preaching a sermon on this passage this week may be tempted to picture a certain person or persons in the congregation as the man (or woman) possessed, who is blocking some congregational agenda the pastor has in mind. There are two alternative possibilities to consider before “going there.” First, is that as much as it may feel like a control issue, it may be a real (legitimate) difference of convictions around an issue. Indicator: Is this person resisting on this particular issue, or is he or she resisting on everything no matter who proposes it, unless it’s his or her idea? The second possibility is that it’s the pastor who has the need to be in control. Imagine Jesus coming into your congregation on Sunday, without any notice, and when the time came he gets up and says, “Excuse me, I’m preaching today.” When you’re honestly ready to let him do it, then you’re ready to “go there.”]

5000 for Dinner

dinner of bread and fish
Photo credit: <a href="">Ernesto Andrade</a>

Mark 6:35-44

When evening came, his students came and said to him, “This is a remote place, and it’s getting late. Send them away so they can go back to civilization, and in the villages they can buy something for themselves to eat.”

He said, “You give them something to eat.”

“Feeding all these people is going to cost over $10,000,” they said. “You want us to spend that kind of money on food for them?”

He said, “How many loaves do you have? Go check.”

They went and counted. “We have five, and two fish.”

Then Jesus told them to get all the people to sit down in the green grass in groups. So they all sat down in groups of hundreds and fifties. Jesus took the five loaves and the two fish, looked to heaven, and then broke the bread into pieces. He gave them to his students, to distribute to the people. Then he divided the fish among them all, too.

Everyone ate until they were full, five thousand men in all. When the students collected the leftovers, there were twelve baskets of pieces of bread and fish.

There’s little mistaking that Jesus has just formed his own legion: five thousand men, divided into hundreds and fifties. Legions, like any military presence, were expensive. Well over $10,000 a day just for food. An army marches on its stomach, then and now.

The little detail about the green grass, a reference to Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my shepherd… he makes me lie down in green grass… he prepares a table before me in the presence of my enemies…”), makes it absolutely clear that Jesus is throwing down a challenge to the Roman imperial occupation.

  • Whereas the Roman legions were paid for and fed by reducing the people of the occupied land to poverty, Jesus’ legion was about feeding those who had been impoverished by the occupation.
  • Whereas the Roman legions were routinely sent into the countryside and villages to take what food they needed, Jesus’ refuses to send his legion out to pillage and terrorize the people.

What does this mean for people like you and me? Start by asking yourself, whose legion are you a part of? What groups do you belong to? Are those groups about extracting resources or multiplying resources? Or, if you’re in the position of leading a group, where are you really taking them?

“How many loaves and fishes do you have? Go check.”

[Bonus: Think about it. Psalm 23 was never intended to be read at funerals, it’s a declaration of defiance and resistance.]

Are You a Leader or a Shepherd?

shepherd with three sheep
Photo credit: <a href="">Feliciano Guimarães</a>

Mark 6:30-34

The apostles came back to Jesus and reported what they’d said and done, but so many people were coming and going that they had no time even for a lunch break. So Jesus said to the apostles, “Come by yourselves, and let’s find someplace without all these people to rest.”

They left in a boat to find someplace out of the way, but when the people saw them leaving, they figured out what they were up to and ran ahead from the cities to arrive before them. When Jesus arrived and saw how large a crowd had gathered, he felt for them. They were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began to teach them all kinds of things.

People today are still like sheep without a shepherd. All Jesus did was to recognize and identify with (feel for) their search for meaning.

Notice that it doesn’t say, people were without leaders. They had plenty of those. They had political leaders (Herod). They had religious leaders (Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes). But they didn’t have shepherds. Which is to say, they didn’t have anyone who cared for them.

The truth is, people tend to want to know, What’s in it for me? How does this affect me? How is it relevant to me? You can call it selfish, or you can call it human nature. Jesus didn’t call it either of those things, though. He called it needing to be cared for.

People still have plenty of leaders. We call them politicians, CEOs, Directors, Pastors. Anybody can be a leader, but you can only start to teach the people you’re leading “all kinds of things” when you really care, not just about your goals for whatever movement you’re trying to lead, but for them.

A Pretty Steep Price to Pay

Beheading can cause kids stress
At the Newseum<br />Photo credit: <a href="">Amanda Hirsch</a>

Mark 7:17-29

Herod himself had arranged John’s arrest and imprisonment. Herod had married his brother Phil’s wife, Herodias. John had called Herod on it, saying “It’s against the law to marry your brother’s wife.” Herodias, therefore, had wanted to have John offed, but Herod wouldn’t allow it because he recognized that John was divinely inspired, which both confused Herod and at the same time aroused his curiosity. So Herod was afraid to allow anything to happen to John.

Eventually, the time came on the occasion of Herod’s birthday banquet. All kinds of dignitaries and important people, the who’s-who of Galilee, were there for the occasion, and Herodias’s daughter performed a dance that so thrilled Herod and the assembled guests that Herod said to her, “You may ask for whatever you like, even half the kingdom, I swear, and whatever you ask for you shall have.”

The girl went running to her mother exclaiming, “What should I ask for?”

Without a whit if hesitation, her mother told her, “Ask for John the Dunker’s head.”

So the girl rushed back to the king and said, “I want John the Dunker’s head. On a platter.”

Herod regretted to do it, but to avoid the embarrassment of not keeping the promise he’d made in front of his guests, he hated to refuse her. Right away, Herod sent one of the guards with orders to bring John’s head. The soldier went to the prison, cut John’s head off, returned with it on a silver platter, and presented it to the girl, who in turn, gave it to her mother.

Upon hearing of this, John’s students came, took his body, and buried it.

All joking aside, what can be the purpose of this gruesome story?

It’s purpose is to demonstrate, in crystal clear terms, what happens to people when they take on those who are in power: they tend to get killed.

It comes just after the disciples are given their mission of going out into the world. As if to say, when you start turning people’s lives around and standing up for what is right, look out. And it comes as a foreshadowing of what will happen to Jesus for taking on those powers. (The note about John’s students coming to get the body is also setting the stage for the contrast in Mark 15:42-47 where Jesus’ disciples will not come to get his body.)

This story is a dramatic picture of what Luke quotes Jesus as saying: “If you want to follow me, count the cost.” (Luke 14:25-33)

Christianity, before the established version we see most often today, wasn’t for wimps and politicians. It was for those who were willing to stand up to politicians (especially those who, like Herod and his guests, sell off peoples lives for the sake of entertainment), to be arrested, to be thrown in jail, and even to be executed.

For those who want to follow Jesus today, the implications are no different. Only the names of the politicians have changed.