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(Read this series from its beginning here.)
When the Temple state officials arrive, they make their accusation: Jesus is casting out demons not by the power of God, but by the power of the head demon himself. This language may be difficult for many people with our modern worldview, but let’s step into the 1st Century context of the story to understand it better. Hollenbach tells us:
“Witchcraft accusations represent a distancing strategy which seeks to discredit, sever, and deny . . . Upstart controllers of spirits are, by their very power over spirits, suspected of causing what they cure.” (P. Hollenbach, Jesus, Demoniacs, and Public Authorities: A Socio-Historical Study, p. 577)
I think of the way men threatened by strong women have historically marginalized, silenced, removed and murdered those women by accusing them of “witchcraft.” This gives us insight into the dynamics of this story in Mark. These are not just stories of mythical demons and exorcisms. That shallow understanding misses the broader point. These stories are political. As Theissen correctly states, “The mythological events here reflect political ones” (Gerd Theissen, The First Followers of Jesus: A Sociological Analysis of the Earliest Christianity, p. 76), Those benefiting from the status quo in these stories were threatened by Jesus’ calls for change and they tried to delegitimize him.
The theme of leaders accusing Jesus of being out of his mind or under the control of demons is in each of the gospels including John:
“Again the Judeans were divided because of these words. Many of them were saying, ‘He has a demon and is out of his mind. Why listen to him?’ Others were saying, ‘These are not the words of one who has a demon. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?’ (John 10:19-21)
In American society today, this same distancing tactic is used, though not necessarily with the labels of demon-possession. Some Christian communities do still use this language toward those they politically oppose. A local Baptist pastor has accused me of being demon possessed because of my affirmation of LGBTQ folk. Other labels that can be used to delegitimize in our society today include “terrorist,” “socialist,” and “communist.”
In our story, Jesus is engaged in acts of liberation, dehumanization, and in Jewish language, jubilee! Yet those threatened by his liberation work are working to have him dismissed as a lunatic or a traitor to his Jewish community. I’m reminded of the warning of Malcom X centuries after Jesus: “If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing” (in Malcolm X Speaks: Selected Speeches and Statements, p. 93).
There is a statement in our passage that arrests my attention the most. We’ll discuss that next.