What Has He To Do With Me?
Fourth Sunday of the Year. Fr Richard Finn finds great contemporary relevance in the way Christ’s ministry begins.
What a start! In the synagogue of a small fishing town by the Sea of Galilee, Jesus begins his life’s work. This is what He was born for. Here, for the first time in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus, the Divine Word made flesh, teaches by word and action. He manifests God’s goodness and power by exorcising and healing the man with an unclean spirit. And this start sets the pattern for what is to follow in the months ahead. He will teach with authority, and he heal the sick in mind and body.
We are meant to see the two as linked. Christ’s teaching, his authoritative wisdom, restores humanity to its rightful state. For his authority is precisely that of the author of life, the One through whom all things were made, the One who makes all things new. And yet the episode doesn’t just highlight the authority of Christ: it encapsulates the violence which resists this authority; we are being introduced to the violence which Jesus’s teaching provokes, or exposes, a necessary confrontation with evil if it is to be exorcised from our midst.
It’s a noisy encounter, as Jesus is challenged by this man in the grip of what is commonly translated as an ‘unclean spirit’, a vicious, immoral force. Evil is necessarily unmasked by the One who is truth. But what are we to make of this swift tirade of questions, of accusations, and the strange ‘outing’ of Jesus as the ‘Holy One of God’?
‘What have you to do with us?’ Our impure spirit claims for itself, or for its victim, an identity cut off from Jesus, a life without common cause or interest. This is a denial first of Jesus’s humanity, what love owes a fellow human being and neighbour as such. But it is also to make of Christ’s divinity an alien or rival power, to deny that immanence, by which God, as St Thomas Aquinas teaches, is closer to us even than we are to ourselves.
‘Have you come to destroy us?’ The demoniac fears that Jesus is out to destroy him. In despair, perhaps, a hostility, an aggression, is projected onto the very One who has come not to destroy but to save.
‘I know who you are, the Holy One of God.’ In the context of Mark’s Gospel, this strange ‘outing’ of Jesus as the Holy One of God comes as a grisly, parodic echo of the Father’s naming of Jesus at His baptism: ‘You are my son, the beloved; in you I am well pleased.’ But there’s no love in what the unclean spirit spits out; no delight in the goodness of the other. As if the demoniac were saying ‘so what if you’re the Holy One of God?’
These reactions to Jesus matter because to some extent they are our reactions also. They are how what is sinful or unclean in us reacts when we are challenged by the Gospel of Jesus Christ. ‘What have you to do with us?’ That’s the dismissive question effectively put by the rich to the poor when we refuse to share wealth justly and generously. It underlies the attitude of those who will not welcome the migrant and asylum seeker. ‘Have you come to destroy us?’ – Are we not guilty of projecting onto others a violence we harbour again them? How many of us, though we know full well who Jesus is, live as though that knowledge made little difference to us. As though the Living God could be reduced to our own clerical or Catholic property, without our being judged to the very marrow by the Word we have spoken.
Yet, against this spray of angry words from the demoniac Christ speaks calmly and authoritatively to exorcise this evil. And there’s our hope! Should we not seek out this teaching and healing for ourselves? We can hope that Christ’s authority and power will set us free, cleanse our hearts of uncleanness. We can invite Him do this through the sacraments of the Church, through our more private prayers, through discipleship, the daily business of loving God and neighbour. Then, for all our continuing imperfections, we are called as individuals, as a congregation or community, as a Church, to grow further by sharing with others the good news of Jesus Christ.
Image: Jesus Casting Out Devils (public domain)