Exorcism of a Man with an Unclean Spirit, Part 1

Exorcism of a Man with an Unclean Spirit, Part 1 January 23, 2024


Our reading this week is an exorcism story from the gospel of Mark:

They went to Capernaum, and when the Sabbath came, Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach. The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law. Immediately there was man in their synagogue who was possessed by an impure spirit who cried out, “Why do you meddle with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the holy one of God!”

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“Be quiet!” said Jesus sternly. “Come out of him!” The impure spirit shook the man violently and came out of him with a shriek.

The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, “What is this? A new teaching—and with authority! He even gives orders to impure spirits and they obey him.” News about him spread quickly over the whole region of Galilee. (Mark 1:21-28)

Whenever we read the exorcism stories in the gospels, the first thing we need to remember is that these stories were not written to answer our modern scientific questions. These stories about Jesus were circulated by an oppressed community on the margins of the Roman empire. As difficult as it may be to temporarily park our attempts to rationalize these stories, we would do well to see them as the narratives of a community in a particular social or political location telling stories to communicate truths while still staying under the radar of the powers that be.

In all of the gospels, Jesus is characterized as an itinerant teacher. In the same gospels, Jesus is also an exorcist.

Rather than demythologizing this week’s story and trying to label it as a story of epilepsy or a mental disability, as modern Jesus scholarship often does, let’s leave the story as it is and instead look for how our reading functions within its original social context: a dangerous world, an oppressed community longing for liberation. Let’s see if there is any socio-political application we can make for our context today.

I also must admit the exorcist stories in the gospels are a bit triggering for me. I remember watching the horror movie The Exorcist on television late one night. I was just 9 years old and I was scarred for life! I still can’t tolerate movies or dramas that include the theme of this week’s story. 

In this part of Mark’s gospel, Jesus has begun teaching and called his initial followers. Then, his first public act is this exorcism on the Sabbath in the synagogue! There is a political point in this narrative, though. And we’ll begin unpacking that, next.

(Read Part 2)

About Herb Montgomery
Herb Montgomery, director of Renewed Heart Ministries, is an author and adult religious re-educator helping Christians explore the intersection of their faith with love, compassion, action, and societal justice. You can read more about the author here.

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