The unclean spirit asks an excellent question.
told by Deborah
Jesus and his disciples went to Capernaum; and on the Sabbath, he went to the synagogue and taught.
His teaching took his listeners’ breath away; he spoke with authority, not merely reading out the words as the scribes did.
It was then that a man with an unclean spirit 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.”
But Jesus rebuked him, “Silence! Come out of him!”
And the unclean spirit, thrashing and shaking and shouting, came out of him.
Everyone was amazed, and kept asking each other, “What just happened? What’s this: a new teaching? With authority he commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”
From that point his fame began to spread throughout all of Galilee.
Capernaum was a small fishing village: archeological records suggest a population at the time of around 1,500 souls. Quite small, indeed: one of those places where everybody knew everybody — and everybody knew everybody else’s business, too.
You can be sure that the tale of the curious event at the synagogue traveled like wildfire throughout the town. Jesus’ teaching, as well as the exorcism would have made him an instant celebrity.
That doesn’t necessarily mean it brought him fans. Although I’m sure there were many who sought to meet him, there were probably just as many who made every effort to avoid him — especially if it meant that a hidden “unclean spirit” might suddenly pop up like a jack-in-the-box and reveal itself to Jesus .… and to everybody else who was around at the time.
That’s the kind of surprise most of us would rather keep to ourselves.
Most people were astonished and confused by signs of the Lord Christ’s divine power and authority (as we heard in this passage), yet unclean spirits and demons recognized who he was at once. It is as if they cannot keep silent; they immediately start kicking up a royal fuss, shouting and squalling: “What are you doing here?! Have you come to destroy us?”
You can understand their distress. Here they are, cosy and comfortable, tucked away in a shady corner of a soul, undisturbed, busy about their work — and then their adversary shows up to toss them out on their ears!
Nobody had noticed, nobody seemed to care as these destructive forces steadily devoured the soul of their (complacent) host: a nibble of envy here, a couple of bites of greed there, a mouthful of hatred… Gradually change is wrought; slow, small steps easily ignored, overlooked, or excused: a little less compassion, diminished patience, reduced generosity, fewer acts of kindness, flashes of anger, prayers and thanksgiving omitted.
Soon the man would have been completely reformed; re-formed, that is: no longer in the image of his Creator, but into a very different sort of being. By accommodating the corrupting spirits, he would serve their whims and wants impulsively, unthinkingly, carelessly, hurtfully — and, like a good and faithful servant, cover up their dirty deeds.
It’s no big deal. It doesn’t matter. What difference does it make?
Making excuses, lying, denying, disguising; “the evil that men do” inevitably turns against us: our souls consumed in repeated cycles of sin and self-deception. The most destructive lies are the ones we tell ourselves.
I’m guessing that this was the condition of the man in the Capernaum synagogue. There he sat, comfortable and confident of his position. Perhaps he’d convinced himself that that his hurtful attitudes and behaviors were of no account, possibly he didn’t care; but, of one thing he was certain: those things he had done or left undone were completely hidden from view.
Then Jesus came into town. Suddenly, the man (and his associate) found themselves in the presence of the One unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid. Yikes!
As we’ve seen, demons and destructive spirits seem to be irresistibly drawn (out) when the Lord is around and, sure enough, this Capernian critter is no exception. Up he pops, with predictable impudence: “What business is this of yours, O Holy One of God? Do you think you can destroy us?” Note, please: the spirit says “Us,” speaking for his victim — his co-conspirator, to be more accurate — as well as for himself. “We are getting along just fine; we don’t want you to break up our partnership, you holy troublemaker!”
Not everybody wants to be healed. A person can get quite comfortable in the company of greed, gluttony, sloth, wrath, envy, and egotism, with sprinklings of lust on the side — as politicians and pornographers, mercenaries and marketing reps discovered long ago. But it is misleading to set up such easy targets as those; the truth is, we are all susceptible to the temptations of ease and willful ignorance, and the allure of self-satisfaction.
Everybody likes to be right. The problem arises when we fall into the trap of thinking that we are always right — and never wrong; that we know all there is to know, that our wisdom and understanding is perfect, and only the stupid or the wicked would disagree. In holding to this attitude there is one thing that is certain: we are not the Lord Christ’s disciples, but the Serpent’s converts, believing that we have become “as gods.”
Yep, it’s him again: that honey-throated liar who soothes our troubled conscience with alibis and excuses, justifications and rationales: “It’s no big deal: that ugly thought, that nasty remark, that hateful deed; a mere trifle, a minor matter. Don’t worry about it.” “They deserved it!” “What’s ‘sin’ anyway? Nothing but a guilt trip; a way to suppress your authentic self. Be who you are!” “Compared with some people, you’re an angel!”
The sweet toxin that dulls our senses, immersing us in a kind of gel, a sticky coating of certainty, blurring our vision, stopping up our ears, and confusing our thinking. We see ourselves as through a glass, darkly: reflecting only our goodness, concealing our smudges and stains. We can grow brittle, unbending, unkind, unforgiving, unthinking: “What have You to do with us, O Lord?”
Is it any wonder that there is such active, heated opposition to Christ’s Way; of the sneers and fears His teachings provoke? The very presence of this Holy One causes every desire, every hidden intention and secret deed to be revealed; in his Light we see light — and that light shines into the deepest shadowy corners of our hearts, as well.
As that guy in Capernaum and his demon might say: “Yikes!”
The corrupted/corrupting spirit asks a good question (remember, they are corrupted, not stupid), one that we are well-served to ask: “What business is this of Yours, Jesus?” What business is it of the Lord Christ’s what we do and say, what we approve, allow, and ignore — in public life and in private?
When lies are spread, when hatred and divisiveness are encouraged, when greed and envy are commonplace; when evil thrives, no one wins. When the unclean spirits succeed at their dirty work, everyone is harmed — even the spirits themselves; there is no joy to be found in destruction. And I wonder if that isn’t why these spirits start yelling and waving their arms around when Jesus shows up: maybe they are sick and tired, maybe they hate what they do, maybe they want to be released. They are, after all, un-clean spirits; spirits that once were clean, fresh, sparkling with health and beauty, agents of life and delight.
We are not told what happened after the unclean spirit departed. Did the man appreciate what was done for him? Did he feel hopeful, renewed, encouraged — or as if something was missing in his life?
For real healing to take place we have to do more than eliminate what diminishes and defiles us; we must follow the Way of the Lord. That way is forward: it is to the future that we have been called to: the radiant Promise of Christ. It is the way that renounces wickedness and pursues virtue, confident of God’s empowering grace; it is the way of Light that leads us to the Eternal Light.
May the light of Christ illuminate our understanding, warm our hearts, and guide us Home,
Consider: Virtue is an exercise and, like any exercise, improves with practice.
“How can I get to Carnegie Hall?” the tourist asked the bus driver. Instantly one of the passengers replied, “Practice, man, practice.”