Out in the Open: Casting Out Unclean Spirits

Mark 1:21-28

I think perhaps my take on this week’s Gospel reading is far too simple now. Maybe this is because I hardly know what to make of it and so I find myself settling on what little I know for sure.

For this is where I wonder:

  • What does it mean that in the first verses of Mark’s Gospel we encounter Jesus teaching in a way those gathered had never heard teaching before?
  • And what does it mean that in the next breath we hear one with an ‘unclean spirit’ recognizing that which no one else seems to recognize?
  • And what does it mean that before we know it, we see Jesus casting out that which has, I imagine, long possessed the one who has been held hostage by a “spirit” which surely did not lead to life?

Oh, I expect Mark pulls out this incident and captures it for us here so as to foreshadow all that will follow in the story he is about to tell. For yes, without a doubt:

  • Jesus did teach in a way no one ever had before and likely never would again.
  • And yes, the one possessed recognized an essential quality of Jesus. Oh, it is so that what we know to be evil had reason to recognize one who had ‘come to destroy’ all that stood in the way of life for God’s beloved.
  • And yes, Jesus’ healing act of casting out the unclean spirit here surely does foreshadow every stand-off yet to come.

All of this I know. But here is where I struggle.

Living here post resurrection in this time between when Jesus came and when we yearn for his coming again, those ‘unclean spirits’ too much of the time still seem to hold sway.

  • Indeed, how many times have I commiserated with families whose loved one refuses to or is unable to quit drinking or using for the substance seems to hold a power even greater than all their love…
  • Or whose child or parent or sibling or friend is afflicted by mental illness and whose mental state is so altered by the treatment — and often not in pleasant ways — that they slip in and out of compliance with that treatment and their loved ones can’t sleep for worry.
  • Or how often do we encounter evil — yes, ‘unclean spirits’  exercising their power in larger systems which keep the poor poor, the sick, ever sicker, the hopeless ever more despairing.

Oh it is so that I yearn for this Jesus to march into my ‘synagogue’ today and to use his authority once and for all to destroy that which threatens to destroy us all. In fact, I cannot count the number of times I have prayed for precisely this. Or, truth be told, at least I used to. Back before my hopes were dashed one time too many. I still pray, of course, but my praying is by now somewhat less certain, less articulate, less hopeful…

And so I come back round to where I started. Perhaps I am coming at this too simply now, but this is what I observe in Mark’s rendering here that too much, too often, I do not observe in the world. At least not where I live and serve. And maybe if this one small thing were so, maybe we might just come closer to the sort of healing we see demonstrated here.  It is simply this:

  • The one with the unclean spirit is out in the open.
  • Out where one and all can see that something is terribly amiss.
  • It is visible and undeniable and maybe this is why Jesus has the chance to actually make right what is so very wrong.

Because, you see, for as long as I can remember and in a way that is pretty much still true right up until yesterday, this is seldom the case.

  • For too much of the time we are ashamed of such as this.
  • We do not speak of it for fear of the misunderstanding or the judgment we expect we will surely see in the eyes of those to whom we dare to entrust that which hurts us the most.
  • And all the while we are living, we are working, we are worshiping side by side with others whose battles with ‘unclean spirits’ are as virulent as our own.

And yes, it is so that our shame and our secrecy can be as ‘unclean’ as that which first ‘possessed’ us or those we have loved. Indeed, we cover up and hide away in shrouds of secrecy and shame that which so frightens us, that which daily breaks our hearts, rendering already dead any meaningful hope for life and healing. We leave it in the dark.

Now I don’t know if pulling these silent terrors out into the light of day would make a difference or not. What I do know is that leaving our ‘unclean spirits’ alone in the dark has done no good at all. In fact, they fester and they thrive on darkness and shame. They surely do.

Oh, I yearn for a world where this might be so. Where we would no longer feed that which kills with our silence and our shame. But that God’s people together in kindness and in hope instead might look them full on together.

  • For might that not be the beginning of healing?
  • Together in community might we just find our way toward rendering whole that which has too long been broken?
  • Might we then taste the power of the ‘authority of Jesus’ which plays out so powerfully before us now?

I haven’t seen it happen yet, but I can’t help but believe that bringing it out in the open and naming it in kindness towards one another and in hope for a different world would  surely be a start. What do you think?

  • What do you make of the reading before us now?  Surely it is possible to receive all of this as prologue to all that will follow in Mark’s Gospel, but is it more than that? Are we to hear something about and claim something in Jesus’ authority over ‘unclean spirits’ even now?
  • What is your experience with the stigma that still surrounds mental illness and addiction? How might the church be instrumental in ‘bringing out into the open’ that which is too often hidden so that healing might be possible?


  1. Jan LaVake says:

    Thank you, Janet, for naming this struggle. While I had hoped for easy answers, I appreciate your honesty . I noticed that above this space there is an arrow pointing to the right after the words ‘God always finds a way’. That is good news!

    • Janet Hunt says:

      Thanks, Jan, for your comment. I, too, yearn for ‘easy answers…’ I’m not certain they are to be had. But yes, God does find a way. I’m going to keep watching for it!

  2. Tracy says:

    I have been trying to comment on this for a week and it ends up turning into a very long commentary because you bring up such very thought provoking questions. Thank you for addressing the “unclean spirits”, they most certainly need to be brought out of the darkness where they can be seen. To keep it short I would just like to share a few things that I know first hand about giving up the shroud of secrecy and living a life free of secrets that for me just perpetrated more shame.
    For years I lived with the humiliation that comes from having alcoholism and I watched my 16 year old son crumble and break under the stigmatizing weight of a bipolar diagnosis.
    After a very embarrassing DUI arrest 9 years ago I finally surrendered and turned to AA and God where I have found strength, hope and a life free from alcohol. I chair AA meetings for the women in the Ogle County Jail and today and that embarrassing DUI is a gift that I share with them. It no longer causes me shame, it’s something I share to show others there is hope no matter how far down the ladder they have gone. I remember the fear of people finding out and today I wonder why I was so afraid of that. Nothing but good has come out of admitting I was an alcoholic and getting help.
    My son is now 27. Many years ago we became involved with an organization called NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) It provided us with the education and coping skills we needed as a family to help understand this life changing illness. Our son felt the stigma as soon as he heard the diagnosis, but after several years of living with bipolar and understanding his illness better, he was able to overcome the stigma. We have both become active advocates, speaking at public events and organizations. I facilitate family support group meetings where I see individuals experience understanding and belonging as soon as they share their story. Mental illness is unique because unlike many diseases, even cancer, there is often no outcome. The individual afflicted with the illness can stay sick for many, many years without getting better. It’s hard to watch a loved one suffer for so long and hang on to hope. I cannot begin to explain the bond that families form when they are fighting a battle that only families dealing with mental illness know. Sharing our burdens with others lightens them.
    Addictions and mental illnesses are diseases, not disgraces. No one needs to fight either one of these alone.

    • Janet Hunt says:

      Thank you, Tracy, for your powerful witness and for your tireless work with and for those who struggle with addiction and mental illness. I am so very grateful for you.

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