In 1932 a story hit the picture screen. A man was bent on marrying his step-daughter after the death of her mother, his deceased wife. And while this drama unfolds an arrow-straight lawman comes to town. The plot thickens as the town, Carabinas, finds itself caught between the villain and the hero. And for about a nickel one could watch it all unfold from a theater seat—and thus was born The Western Code, and with it the famous line, “This town ain’t big enough for the both of us…”
Mark 1:21-28, specifically vv.23-26, might be summed up by the quote above. The “unclean spirit” has been a villain imposing an improper relationship on a man. The lawman, Jesus, has come to town to set things to rights.
In the 1932 movie the conversation went this way:
Nick Grindel: I’m getting tired of your meddling. This town ain’t big enough for the both of us and I’m going to give you 24 hours to get out. If I see you in Carabinas by this time tomorrow, it’s you or me!
Tim Barrett: I’ll see you at this time… tomorrow.
In 1st Capernaum it went this way:
21They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”25But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!”26And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” 28At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee. (text from NRSV)
It is easy to get caught up in the theatrical aspects of the exchange. And, indeed, perhaps most theatrical and terrifying would be when a man seems to refer to himself as “us” in v.24.
What strikes me about the exchange is that the “unclean spirit” left, but not before “convulsing” the man and causing him to “cry with a loud voice.” This looks so much like what I have experienced of folks who detox from drugs, or who seek to break free from life patterns that damage and destroy them. I’ll never forget the “nicotine fits” that Granddaddy had when he laid down the Winstons after 47 intimate, life-crippling years. I clearly remember Granddaddy shaking a pack of Winstons in his left hand, pointing at them with his right hand, and shouting, “You think you’ve got me, but I got you!”
Cigarette addiction ended for W.C. Bryant, Jr., but not without a fight. It seems very similar to the “unclean spirit” that left the Capernaum resident but not without a fight.
In the instance with W.C. and the instance with the tormented man what seems important is that the “unclean spirit” left. Let’s keep in mind that although Jesus did tell the spirit to hush and leave, and although it did so, the spirit obeyed with some degree of reluctance. The man was convulsed and made to cry out.
In that terrific scene, is there good news for us? Is there good news to be had in a spirit that leaves, by the command of Jesus, but does so begrudgingly? Yes, there is.
Despite the fact that the spirit uses the word, “us,” the text consistently refers to the “unclean spirit” in the singular. It could be that the spirit is speaking as though it has multiple personae. It could also be that the spirit is referring to the crowd, identifying Jesus as the outsider, separate from the group. Regardless to whom the “us” refers we’ve good news for Jesus has authority. We’ve good news for our own “unclean spirits” are not always quick to release us,
I think Richard Rohr gets it right, when in Falling Upward, he says, “Before the truth sets you free, it tends to make you miserable”
Notice that Rohr indicates how truth has a quality that leaves us but does not free us until we have been made miserable by that truth. I wonder if this is why Jesus potentially permitted the man to experience “convulsion” and “crying out.” These would be great incentives not to invite that “unclean spirit” back into our life, great incentives to receive a greater truth.
And just what is “unclean” anyhow?” Well, in this text, the word being used is a form of ἀκάθαρτος, When it is used it means “unclean” in a ceremonial sense—-like the ceremony of coming to the table at our homes when we ask another, “Did you wash your hands before you came to the table?” If they answer, “No,” then they are unclean. To become clean they must have washed hands. And another meaning for “unclean” is in the sense of something that must be done (or not done) to meet Levitical laws. And along with such laws, I might even be tempted to add—-“things known and unknown, done and left undone.”
Unclean spirits come in every shape and size—literal, figurative, even metaphoric. And no matter how they come, Jesus has authority over them all. And should they seize us again, Jesus can bring release.
Spare Holy Mother Church the pains of some pitiful preaching that exalts the demonic. Every breath given to such exultation is breath that is better rendered to the praise of the One who kicked the “unclean spirit’s” can. The man was caught in the middle between the unclean and the purest clean. Evil deserves no press—-for the matter was settled when Jesus operated from the reality that, “”This town (man) ain’t big enough for the both of us.” And at the end of the day—where was the man? With Jesus. And how did that come about–Jesus.So, at the end of the day what should we preach? Jesus.