The second Gospel was probably the first to be written. In fact, we might say that Mark invented the literary form that we call “gospel”. His has been called the “dramatic Gospel”: it is much shorter than the others; the events and teaching are recounted with speed and urgency. Reading in liturgical chunks we lose this sense of movement, characterised by his repeated words “and” and “immediately”.
Having just called his first disciples, Jesus now performs the opening miracle of his ministry: an exorcism on the sabbath in the synagogue of Capernaum, a fitting retort on the part of the one who a few verses earlier was driven into the wilderness and tempted by Satan. It seems that the authority of his teaching, recognised by all present, provokes a much deeper recognition on the part of the unclean spirit/spirits: what have you to do with us? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God. The incoherent language of singular and plural suggests a suffering person sadly divided. Jesus is abrupt and unsubtle in his reply: the rather bland Be silent of our translation is much stronger in Greek, literally Be muzzled, as though he were talking to an angry dog.
For many today, the concept of unclean spirits is difficult to fathom, even though it’s prominent in the Gospels. There seem to be three ways to approach the question: firstly, some people would claim that we are dealing with a form of sickness of the mind, needing psychological rather than spiritual help. Others would claim that unclean spirits are a personification of the divisions we all find within ourselves, namely, in the language of St Paul, the tension between flesh and spirit. A third way is to believe that we are dealing with a personalised intelligence dedicated to disruption and evil.
Irrespective of how we might conceive of such things, the Gospel offers a useful teaching: resisting evil in all its manifestations, great and small, is part of the Lord’s mission, and of ours as his followers. God has given us the freedom to oppose evil and to live without fear because the Holy One of God has already won the victory.
By Fr Edmund Power, osb