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Open Book: How Jesus enters the pain of the oppressed

NILS VON KALM looks at a passage in Mark’s Gospel in which Jesus encounters a man possessed by an “impure spirit”…

Read Mark 1:21-28

During the 23 years I worked in international aid and development, the one thing that impacted me more than anything else was how people living in poverty experience poverty.

I distinctly remember a story told by Steve Bradbury, who was at Tearfund Australia for many years, about a study called Voices of the Poor that was carried out by the World Bank in 2000.

In the study, the World Bank interviewed 60,000 people around the world who were living in abject poverty and asked them what poverty was for them. The overwhelming response was that poverty for them was about a lack of a sense of dignity, a feeling of being “less than”. So, dealing with poverty was essentially about restoring a sense of people’s God-given dignity.

That’s what I see in the way Jesus sees the man with an unclean spirit in this story at the beginning of Mark’s Gospel.

PICTURE: Wirestock/iStockphoto

In this story, Jesus differentiates between the man and the evil spirit. Whether or not the man was actually possessed by a demon or if it was a mental illness or something else, his anguish was intense. He wasn’t himself. In another story later in Mark’s Gospel – the story of the Gerasene demoniac (Mark 5:1-20) – we’re told that after Jesus healed that man, he was in his right mind.

When you’re possessed by a demon or struggling with your mental health, you’re not in your right mind. In my own struggles with mental ill-health, at its worst, the word “torment” is not overstating it.

“Jesus’ bottom line is that He sees people – and this man is an example – as made in the image of God, with full dignity. Jesus shows deep compassion with every afflicted person He comes across.”

Notice, though, how Jesus doesn’t condemn the man, or tell him that his affliction was because of something he did wrong. Jesus knows straight away that this is not about the man’s character or anything like that. In fact, He doesn’t even address the man. He addresses the unclean spirit. He says “come out of the man”.

Jesus’ bottom line is that He sees people – and this man is an example – as made in the image of God, with full dignity. Jesus shows deep compassion with every afflicted person He comes across.

There is another important point to grasp about the unclean spirit in this story. It’s to do with what the unclean spirit says to Jesus. What He says follows a pattern of what other unclean spirits throughout the Gospels say to Jesus.

The point is that the ones in the Gospels who have the best theology, who get it exactly right about Jesus when everyone else gets it wrong, are the demons.

What does that say to us?

It clearly says that having the best theology is not the most important thing.

John Smith, the founder of God’s Squad Christian Motorcycle Club, said the following about this: “The Pharisees were interested in orthodoxy, in other words, having the right beliefs or right theology. Yet Jesus was more interested in orthopraxis, having the right actions to match. Most of the debates that Jesus has with the Pharisees are around their love of right beliefs (orthodoxy) that often got in the way of their right actions (orthopraxis) or love and compassion for the common people.”

That’s significant for this story because we’re specifically told that this story took place on a Sabbath, when you weren’t supposed to do anything that could be considered “work”. This happened regularly in the Gospels, where Jesus heals someone on the Sabbath and the religious leaders are more concerned that Jesus has broken Sabbath laws than they are about the fact that someone who was deeply unwell has been made well.

In terms of how the Pharisees and other religious leaders viewed God and the world, it was no wonder they didn’t listen to Jesus. In their worldview, Jesus clearly couldn’t be of God if He so clearly disregarded all these rules.

This is not to say that belief is not important. It is. It matters what we believe. However, while some Christians who are more activist-minded sometimes don’t pay enough attention to belief, other Christians generally place too much emphasis on belief and being right. Neither are the way of Jesus.

The fact is that bad theology costs lives. Jesus is the best theology. Love of God and neighbour is the best theology. As the author of the letters of John says, whoever loves is born of God. And of course as Jesus Himself says, the whole Law and Prophets is summed up in the command to do for others as you would want them to do for you.

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Throughout the Gospels, Jesus is shown to be more concerned about right actions than right doctrine. When many are so concerned about being born again, which is mentioned once in the Gospels, Jesus is more concerned about following Him, which is mentioned more than 80 times in the Gospels. That is not to dismiss the importance of being born-again. After all, Jesus did say it. But following Jesus is more important according to Him.

We’re also told in this passage that Jesus spoke with authority, which wasn’t how other rabbis spoke. The question that comes to mind for me regarding this is what is meant by the fact that Jesus spoke with authority.

Firstly, I think it means that He spoke on His own authority, like in the Sermon on the Mount where He says, “you have heard that it was said, but I say to you…”, whereas other rabbis would quote teachers like Moses. They would say, “As Moses said…”.

This was why the people were so astounded at Jesus’ teaching. They would have been wondering who this person is and who He thinks He is, effectively saying that you should listen to Him above other teachers like even Moses. If someone did that today, you would have good reason to think they were either totally deluded or unbelievably arrogant, or both.

This is where I like the old assertions about Jesus that people like CS Lewis pointed out, that Jesus was either a liar, a lunatic or Lord.

For someone to make the most outrageous claims about Himself that Jesus did, yet He never comes across as aloof, arrogant or psychologically unstable, is still one of the aspects of the Gospels that convinces me about the claims of Jesus after four decades of following Him.

“The American theologian, Debie Thomas, says that what we see from Jesus in this passage is that He does back up what He says. She makes the point that Jesus didn’t use His authority to gain power or popularity. He used it to heal, to serve and to empower. He had an integrity and a generosity that compelled people to listen to and follow Him.”

We are very wary of truth claims in our society. And with good reason. Politicians are one of the least trusted people groups in our culture, and it’s because they generally make promises they either don’t or can’t keep. People who speak with a sense of authority need to back up what they say or we will see right through them.

We see this also in the previous passage in Mark’s Gospel (Mark 1:16-20), that the fishermen immediately left their nets and followed him. Jesus offered them something so compelling that it was worth dropping everything – their careers and livelihoods – and choosing a different path of using the gifts they had to follow him.

Debie Thomas also makes the point that Jesus enters directly into the pain of the man with the unclean spirit. Jesus doesn’t flinch; He is assertive and direct in dealing with the man’s agony. Thomas makes the point that wherever pain, darkness and torment is, there God is. It reminds me of a sermon that Munther Isaac, the pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Bethlehem, gave last Christmas when he asked the question, “Where is God with what’s happening in Gaza?” Munther Isaac said that God is right there, under the rubble.

Jesus spoke with an authority born of integrity and generosity, and He entered directly into pain and dealt with it. And it all came out of Him seeing people with the inherent dignity that He has given us all, whether we see it or not.

Seeing people with their God-given dignity, emphasising love over legalism and correct doctrine, and having an authority that astounds us. These are the numerous profound take-aways we can take from this short passage in Mark’s Gospel.


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