- Zachary Helton
"The Authority to Cast Out Demons," by Zachary Helton
Updated: Feb 1, 2021
They came to Capernaum, and on the Sabbath Jesus entered the synagogue and began to teach. The people were spellbound by the teaching, because Jesus taught with an authority that was unlike their scribes.
Suddenly a person with an unclean spirit appeared in their synagogue. It cried, “What do you want from us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!”
Jesus rebuked the spirit sharply: “Be quiet! Come out of that person!”
At that, the unclean spirit convulsed the possessed one violently, and with a loud shriek it came out. All who looked on were amazed. They began to ask one another, “What is this? A new teaching, and with such authority! This person even gives orders to unclean spirits and they obey!” Immediately, news of Jesus spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee. This is one of our sacred stories, Thanks be to God.
Where does spiritual authority really come from? And what does it mean, in our world, to exorcise a demon?
The people of Capernaum had become used to a certain caliber of teacher. Well, ‘become used to’ is an easy way of putting it. If we’re more honest, we might say they had ‘learned to settle.’
Weekly, they would gather in the assembly hall, sit down, chant their psalms, and brace themselves as the old, portly scribe took the podium and unfurled the day’s scroll. He was so loaded down with honorary stoles and headgear, it was no wonder his shoulders conceded to slouch at a lazy angle.
“Adonai your God will raise up for you a prophet,” he’d drone from Deuteronomy, “from among your own people. You shall heed such a prophet…” and then he’d go on to expound on Israel’s failure to heed its prophet, failure to follow the laws, failure to appease God’s righteous expectations, failure, failure, failure, and then end with the predictable warning that, should this assembly likewise fail in its commission to righteousness, it too might suffer God’s fiery wrath. Thanks be to God, Amen.
It truly did not matter the text or the scroll, the congregation had heard this same sermon so many times, some of the more insolent children made a game of mouthing along with predictable verbal patterns. Some did a very good impression of the scribe’s caricatured legalisms. Parents, however, were obliged to thump them on the head, for even though they wholeheartedly agreed with their children’s assessment, their higher priority was on getting out quickly and not causing a scene.
When the service mercifully ended, the scribe would disappear through a side curtain where, as far as the citizens of Capernaum were concerned, he may well have sat collecting dust until the next Sabbath rolled along.
The people weren’t sure who was responsible for inviting a guest to speak, it certainly couldn’t have been their scribe, who sulked contemptuously from his stool for the duration of the service, but whoever it was, the congregation were silently grateful.
“The Kingdom of God,” the young rabbi began, “is among you. It is within you at this very moment. Let go of who you thought you were, of what you thought all of this was about. Let go of the Kingdom of Rome, the Kingdom of Capernaum, the Kingdom of Yourself and enter the Kingdom of God! Enter the Kingdom where you know yourselves, not subjects but beloved children of the Living God, who holds you and grants you peace like a loving father.”
Well, the first thing they noticed was the obvious change in tense. When the rabbi spoke, unlike the scribe, it was in the present and active. God does, rather than God did. God is rather than God was. To this rabbi, God was not an angry ruler on a distant cloud after having spent a career tampering in human history, but the Spirit of Love and Justice in their very midst, waiting with radical grace to be noticed, waiting to love the best parts of them into being. In contrast to the scribe’s deity, this was, simply put, a living God.
The second thing they noticed was that, though the rabbi clearly expected something of them – namely their letting go and entering the Kingdom – it was a very different sort of expectation than that of the scribe. The young rabbi offered them a way of peace and refuge, and he offered it with joy. The scribe, by contrast, offered threats of judgment, and he only did so with a sense of begrudging obligation.
And then, a third thing they noticed became apparent only as the sermon wound on, weaving stories of their ancient heroes with news of modern monarchs, sacred stories with stories from his community of outcasts. What became clear was that this teacher spoke, not from academic training, from blind faith in tradition, or from empty charisma… but from direct experience. To put it simply, it was the difference between hearing of a faraway land from one who had read a travel guide in their armchair, and hearing the adventures of one who had gotten up and journeyed their themselves. The rabbi, it became clear, was a resident and regular explorer in this Kingdom of God, at work widening its just borders into this world, locked in regular combat with those spirits that threatened its sovereignty.
In the astounded eyes of the congregation, fixed on the young rabbi with rapt attention, Jesus earned an immediate authority the poor scribe had never, on his most alert Sabbath days, managed to muster.
This authority, however, which captivated so much of the congregation, caused, in others, a reaction of a different sort. To them, the novel authority of the young rabbi was not a comfort, but rather a threat. Instead of than a vision of hope, what they saw was an immediate danger to their own authority, a danger to the kingdoms they had spent the bulk of their lives setting up for and within themselves.
Jesus’ authority pushed against the authority of the spirits of consumerism and materialism, of national exceptionalism and religious certainty. It pushed back against the deluded demons of resentment and pride, of complacency and comfort. It was a threat to every fear-mongering spirit that had managed to take possession of the hearts and minds of the Capernaum.
Each possessed soul became more afraid the longer the young rabbi talked, but fear is, perhaps, the most often disguised feeling. What they registered in its place was fear’s far safer cousin: Anger. All they knew was the discomfort of the growing fire burning within their chest, and so their minds immediately set to work backfilling reasons to hate the young rabbi.
For one man, this invisible battle became so intense, he could no longer hold his tongue.
“And what would you have us do, exactly?” he interrupted, crying in a loud voice. “Have you come just to destroy our entire lifestyle? Have you come just to cause trouble and upset the order of things?”
The congregation sat in stunned silence at this outburst, so foreign to their Saturday morning liturgy, but Jesus only smiled to him.
“Thank you,” he said seeing through the anger and locking, instead, imprinted image of God on the man’s face. “It sounds like you’re afraid of what would happen if you actually did what I said? Afraid of the unknown?”
The man gave a decisive nod.
“I hear that,” Jesus affirmed. “But child of God, you should never have to settle. You should never have to settle for a Kingdom that treats you like trash, steals your property, abuses your family, and tells you you’re worth no more than what you can contribute. You never have to settle for a Kingdom that puts imaginary wedges between you and those you love, divides you and makes you feel afraid so that it can keep you under control. You never have to settle for a Kingdom that equates your obedience with your value.”
He went on. “It is frightening to imagine, to embody something different, I hear that, and we are foolish to deny that it may cost us greatly. But we must, each of us, let go of this shadow we call life in order to find true life, trusting in the God who imagines good for every last one of us.”
The man pushed back, and again Jesus answered with compassion, taking the man’s insults like the earth takes the rain. Back and forth, over and over they went their rounds until at long last the man stood spent, as though he’d awoken from a long and exhausting trance, and a sob wracked his body. It was followed by another, and then another, cutting off his ability to speak.
His wife stood and held his convulsing body tightly in her arms. The congregation watched in amazement. With each long-repressed sob, the demons which had so long oppressed him were cast out, and he glimpsed again the light they’d been hiding away.
What is happening? The congregation thought to themselves. What is this teaching? This authority? This soldier for a Kingdom that liberates even the hardest hearts?
When the service concluded and it was time for Jesus to take his leave, there were, of course, still many who watched him go with relief, seeing his departure as a good riddance. He could do miracles, it was true, among those who still clutched so tightly to their beloved demons, he could do nothing. Others, however, proceeded to their homes and families and follow him. They let go of their old lives, as he’d said, to discover this new one he promised in the Kingdom of God. The rest consisted of those who remained where they were, but did not remain the same. Jesus had led them to peak behind some veil they didn’t know was there, to see through a crack in the wall they’d taken for granted, and they set to work exploring this newfound life of freedom. At once, his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee, and the people wondered at what was possible when one discovered such authority, and when the Kingdoms of the demons were overturned by the Kingdom of God.
The authority is ours, as are the demons. This is a sacred story for this sacred moment. Thanks be to God.
Invitation to Respond
On paper, or with someone in the room, reflect on one or more of these questions:
What stood out to you from this story? Something you liked or that rubbed you the wrong way?
Where did you see yourself in the story? What are the implications for you?
How do you sense you’re being invited to respond?