Devices and desires and distractions: from the earliest days of Jesus' ministry there were efforts to silence the Gospel.
retold by Deborah
Jesus and his disciples went to Capernaum and on the sabbath, he taught in the synagogue — and blew everyone away. He spoke with absolute assurance, not like someone reading a history lesson, but making the words come alive with meaning.
All at once, right there in the synagogue, a man with a destructive spirit shouted, “What business do you have with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are: the Holy One of God!”
“Silence!” Jesus commanded, “Come out of him!”
And the destructive spirit came out of him, shaking and screeching.
Everyone was amazed, and they kept asking one another, “What just happened?” “Wow. That’s a different way of looking at things.” “He’s so confident when he teaches.” “Did you see how fearlessly he confronted those destructive spirits? — And they obeyed him!”
From that point on Jesus’ fame spread throughout the region.
A Word About that Spirit /
The description of spirit that Jesus ordered out of the man in Capernaum is usually translated as “unclean,” but I think that’s liable to mislead us. We’re inclined to interpret “unclean” in a Puritanical sense, equating it with “dirty” — like a “dirty secret,” and assuming it has something to do with sex. That isn’t necessarily the case.
An unclean spirit is one that doesn’t conform to what is holy. It is the opposite of righteous. It may be unjust, envious, lecherous, thieving, greedy, grasping, abusive, murderous; it may be a spirit of confusion, terror, hatred, vanity, deceit.
Whatever form it takes, an unclean spirit brings harm. Therefore, I believe it is more accurate to translate it as a “destructive spirit.”
Imagine that you were in the synagogue that day. You’ve just listened to a dynamic and inspiring sermon like nothing you’ve ever heard before when, suddenly, the guy sitting next to you starts shouting: “What business do you have here with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Are you trying to destroy us?”
If it were me, several things would probably go through my mind at that point: What is he saying? Why is he saying that? And who is “us”? Or, as a fellow I worked with used to say: “Who’s this ‘we’ you’re talking about? Do you have a mouse in your pocket?”
Remember: this isn’t the voice of a multitude of spirits; there was only one destructive spirit infesting the man. Yet it shouted out a challenge to Jesus, shamelessly claiming to speak for everyone who was there that day: “What business do you have here with us?”
The destructive spirit is no dummy; it chooses a powerful method of intimidation to try to silence Jesus: the opinion of the crowd. This assertion isn’t aimed strictly at Jesus, but intended to influence any who are undecided or unsure: if “everybody” is convinced — everybody else, that is — these others won’t want to disagree. It’s uncomfortable and unpleasant to be different. There’s no sense rocking the boat, and you certainly don’t want to be labeled as a troublemaker, or ostracized from the community. It’s easier and safer to join in and go along with the crowd. “Well, if he says we’re all agreed… I guess I am, too.”
The claim of “us,” is a dangerous one, always to be held suspect and analyzed closely. (Yes, even when used by Christian clergywomen ☺.) It is an expressed claim to the authority of a whole group or community, and an effective device for coercion and manipulation. “Everyone is agreed” (implying that there is no dissent); “We decided” (your opinion has been usurped, overruled, or ignored); “He has no business here with us” (differing opinions are not allowed). We are one — and if you don’t agree, you’re nobody. Or, worse yet: a threat, an enemy, a danger to “us.”
“Have you come to destroy us?”
Predictably, the destructive spirit continues its assault. If peer pressure (“What business do you have with us”) doesn’t turn the people against Jesus, there’s the always-reliable threat of danger. Fear is an exceptionally effective motivator. It is a part of being human: when we are afraid, we react emotionally, rather than responding thoughtfully. When we are threatened, we fight or flee.
The destructive spirit knew perfectly well that Jesus could not be scared off — but as for the rest of the people.… The Good News was only in its infancy; it might still be contained or eliminated, and so it spoke in opposition to what the Lord had said: substituting His words of assurance with the threat of extinction and death — our ultimate fear: “Have you come to destroy us?” The man may have even stood up at that point, poised to run, to incite panic or inspire an attack upon the One who brought this dangerous Message.
There’s no way to know how these alarms and diversions were received by the hearers. Perhaps they were distrusted, perhaps they were ignored, perhaps they seemed at least a bit persuasive. It’s hard to hold fast to our faith — and especially to our hopes — in the face of cynicism, despair, and denial.
Remember, the speaker wasn’t a demon in a red tuxedo with hooves and a tail; the destructive spirit made its home inside of an average Joe. He was a regular guy to all outside appearances, just like the rest of us. There was no reason for anyone to distrust what the man was saying.
No one would have guessed that his intentions were to spread fear, hopelessness, and division. Except Jesus. Jesus knew at once that the man was possessed by a spirit dedicated to doing harm — and the Lord called it out at once. “Silence!” Jesus commanded, “Come out of him!”
Confronted by Jesus, the destructive spirit put on quite a performance: shrieking and shaking, causing convulsions in its victim, and then disappearing from the man and this story (although not, obviously, from our world). Afterwards, we are told, the witnesses were amazed and astonished by Jesus’ teachings — but especially by His courage and willingness to confront the destructive spirit. “And from there his fame spread across the land of Galilee.”
It sounds as if the story ends happily. The unholy spirit is silenced, the man is healed, the people are impressed, and Jesus’ reputation is assured.
But I wonder.
In some ways it is almost as if the destructive spirit won that round, because it co-opted the conversation. Instead of focusing on the Good News that Jesus preached, the people were fascinated by the exorcism. The main topic of conversation in the days that followed may have been Jesus — but the unholy spirit stole the show.
That’s how it is with destructive spirits: they distract, mislead, and deceive us.
Jesus preached the Good News in the synagogue in Capernaum; that’s what he came to do, and he did it magnificently. People were in awe of what they heard; inspired and encouraged and unafraid, filled with joy and hope. In response, the destructive spirit jumped in to distract the hearers with noise and shouting: “Never mind him! Look over here! Ignore the holy message of divine love and mercy — consider the power of antagonism and aggression! See what I can do!”
It worked. Even now we focus our attention on the drama of the exorcism, impressed by Jesus’ power to chase away wicked spirits — forgetting the part about the Good News that preceded it. Jesus came to us preaching the good news of God. That’s what was important then, that’s what is important now.
How often are we distracted from the glorious Good News of God — our attention drawn to acts of injustice and destruction, our hearts brought low by incessant hatred and division? “Never mind what Jesus said; forget the hope, the joy, the call to love and compassion — look here! and here! and here! See the evils that men do!”
The destructive spirit speaks today as it has always done: “What does this Jesus have to do with us? Our world is filled with ugliness and egotism, sickness and sorrow — there’s no place for his Message here! Don’t pay any attention to Him; look, instead, at this!”
And Jesus speaks today, as the Holy One has always done, “Do not be afraid.” — he said it again and again; the Scriptures are filled with these words of comfort and assurance. And Jesus said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your thinking, with all your doing; and love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:29, Matthew 22:37, Luke 10:27).
Virtual hugs and real-time blessings,
Do not be distracted from the Gospel.
“Love is not a word, but a Way.”