Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B
7 February 2021
Psalm 147:1-11, 20c
1 Corinthians 9:16-23
Because of Covid I haven’t done a hospital visit in some time. This is strange and it feels like I am neglecting not only my duty but also my call.
Visiting the sick is part of what it means to be a follower of Jesus and what it means to be human. In Matthew 25 Jesus says, when I was sick, you took care of me.
Long before the pandemic I remember finding it difficult to gown up, put on gloves, and mask to either protect myself or the person I was visiting, depending on the situation. It was counter-intuitive. Intuitive was to reduce barriers, to show you are not visiting a patient but a person, and to hold hands when you pray, or simply to comfort.
However, we know that keeping our distance, wearing masks, and keeping our number of contacts as small as possible is not only effective against Covid-19 but is ancient advice already given by Martin Luther during the time of the plague, “[I] avoid places and persons where I am not needed in order that I may not abuse myself and that through me others may not be infected and inflamed with the result that I become the cause of their death through my negligence.”1
The situation Jesus encounters in today’s passage also has to do with measures to maintain purity or cleanliness.
Quite a bit of the effort of the religious was focused on cleanliness, ritual and otherwise. If you were deemed unclean, you were excluded from community, the temple, and you needed to engage in certain rituals that would make you clean, provided healing was possible.
While priests, pharisees, and scribes are concerned about purity, Jesus consistently violates laws relating to purity. He meets with sinners, welcomes lepers, and heals those whose diseases are thought to be evidence of someone’s sin. It’s not that Jesus intentionally violates the purity laws, but rather that Jesus sees the person not the illness.
In today’s passage Jesus comes to teach in the synagogue. It is here that he encounters a man possessed by an unclean spirit. The spirit calls Jesus “the Holy One of God.” Jesus commands the unclean spirit to come out of the man. The people are amazed at Jesus’ teaching.
Mark does not tell us what Jesus taught in the synagogue and so it seems that the exclamation of the people, “What is this? A new teaching – with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him,” refers to the healing of the man.
The man is healed and is thus restored to community. We have long understood the social implication of the healings of Jesus. It also relates to our own painful experience during the pandemic when we keep apart.
There is a beautifully illustrated book of the sayings of the desert fathers and mothers who lived in Egypt in the fourth century.2 One of the saying pertains to a demon possessed man being brought to an old man in hopes of the man being cured by him. The old man said to the demon, ‘Go out of God’s creation.’ The demon replied, ‘I will go out but let me ask you just one thing. Tell me, who are the goats and who are the sheep?’ Then the old man said, ‘A goat is someone such as I am, but as for the sheep, well, only God knows.’ Hearing this, the demon cried out in a loud voice: ‘Look, because of your humility I am going out!’ And he went away that very moment.3
There are two things that strike me in the story.
The first one is that the old man refers to the one who is possessed as God’s creation. He is never a problem, he remains God’s creation, and despite the possession he can see God’s image in him.
The second is that the old man who clearly carries authority in the community, or else the man would not have been brought to him, does not elevate himself over others. One who lives in humility will not ostracize others, is not afraid that others could make him unclean.
There is another story I think of. It is told in the 10th chapter of the Book of Acts. It concerns the forming of the new community from people of different cultural backgrounds. Cornelius is a Roman centurion and a God-fearer, which means he is a gentile convert to the God of Israel. God gives a vision to both Cornelius and the Apostle Peter. Part of Peter’s vision is Peter being offered food that was considered unclean. And to Peter’s resistance God says, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” (Acts 10)
You see the connection between the stories: Jesus is not afraid of what and who is considered unclean. The old man in the story from the desert fathers calls the man who is possessed God’s creation. And the voice declares to Peter that the things God has made are all clean.
Coming back to our passage from Mark, it has been pointed out that the term “Holy One of God” refers to Israel’s priesthood. One of the main jobs of the priest was to expel anybody who was “unclean.” Jesus’ silences the unclean spirit, then, not because the unclean spirit proclaims the truth that Jesus does not yet want to be known, but Jesus silences the unclean spirit because the spirit is wrong. Jesus does not expel the “unclean.”
Connecting this to the story of Peter and Cornelius, the theologian James Alison has transferred the declaration of “What God has made clean, you must not call profane,” to apply to the inclusion of people who identify as LGBTQ. I think this is helpful because it takes the subject of purity and applies it to inclusion and exclusion.
It turns out then, that Jesus not only restores the man to the community, but since Jesus is not a gatekeeper whose mission it is to keep people out, he also restores the community to the man, by expelling the collective attitude that the man is unclean when it is the crowd’s spirit that has invaded the man and declared him unclean. By casting out this spirit, Jesus makes clean the community and thus restores man and community to each other.4
Wendell Berry in his poem How to Be a Poet (to remind myself) writes,
“There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places.”5
Jesus seems to agree, not only about places but about people.
So yes, for the time being we need to wear masks, keep our distance, and keep our contacts few. But not because we are good and others are bad. All people are God’s creatures and if Jesus did not consider others unclean, how could we?
1 Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 43: Devotional Writings II, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 43, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999, 119–38, reprinted in Christianity Today:
2 Yoshi Nomura, Desert Wisdom, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1982
3 ibid pg 80-81
4 I am thankful to Andrew Marr, OSB for his insights layed out in, “What kind of Spirit was Jesus casting out?”, posted on 26 January 2018: https://andrewmarrosb.blog/2018/01/26/what-kind-of-spirit-was-jesus-casting-out/