Byzantine-era synagogue at Capernaum (security lights are a later addition).

Mark 1:21-28 (NRSV): 21 They went to Capernaum, and when the Sabbath came, Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach. 22 The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law. 23 Just then a man in their synagogue who was possessed by an impure spirit cried out, 24 “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!”

25 “Be quiet!” said Jesus sternly. “Come out of him!” 26 The impure spirit shook the man violently and came out of him with a shriek.

27 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.” 28 News about him spread quickly over the whole region of Galilee.

Sunday’s gospel reading, for the fourth Sunday after Epiphany, gives St. Mark’s account of Jesus’ healing a man with an impure spirit in the synagogue at Capernaum. And in our weekly Zoom session on the pericopes for the day, we were asked what unclean spirits we can identify in our own 21st-century lives. I immediately thought of all the political conspiracy theories swirling around lately, but I bit my tongue and didn’t mention them. I’m kind of proud of that.

As unclean as I think some of the spirits are in Washington, D.C. (or Mar-a-Lago), I suspected an impure spirit of my own was behind that wisecrack. So I told it to be quiet, and we went on with our discussion.

We had a lot to talk about What, exactly, is an impure spirit? How can we tell?

Do we harbor impure spirits? Or unclean spirits, to use the more common English translation in the King James bible. Yep, we agreed, all too often we do. So when we hear a spirit prompting us, how do we know when it’s OK and when it’s an unclean spirit and we ought to tell it to shut up?

Rather than rehash what we said over Zoom, though, I want to go off in a different direction (even though I suspect we’ll wind up in the same place). Before the pandemic hit last year, we had launched something in my congregation called dinner church, sort of a combination of a communion service, a Sunday school class discussion and a potluck. And I liked the way the discussions engaged us with the lectionary readings for the day.

Basically, dinner church is a way of “structuring services around a meal,” says Emily McFarlan Miller of Religion News Service. “The dinner church movement,” she adds, “sees gathering together for a meal itself as worship, rather than just another church potluck after worship.”

That’s as good a definition as any. I like it especially because it’s ambiguous. Leaves us lots of wiggle room. Anyway, when I was cleaning my home office the other day, I found the program for a dinner church service back in December 2019. On it I noticed three discussion questions:

  • What in this text catches your attention?
  • Is this text Good News to you? Why or why not?
  • What might this text be asking of you?

Good questions. And I don’t want to wait till the pandemic is over to try them out again. So let’s get started.

What catches my attention? Well, the first that hit me is the setting: I’ve been there. At least Debi and I have been to the fourth- or fifth-century synagogue in Capernaum (see picture above). It was built over the foundations of a synagogue that dates back to Jesus’ day, and the earlier foundation of black basalt can be seen at ground level behind Debi in the picture. So this, exactly like the tourist literature proclaims, is literally where Jesus walked. For me, that gives the story an immediacy it wouldn’t have otherwise. I don’t know if Mark’s account is strictly historically accurate. But, in a word, I think it’s real.

Capernaum was a fishing village, but it was also a garrison town on the border between two Roman provinces. It’s in the back of my mind somewhere that a Roman officer helped bankroll the synagogue, in fact. Archaeologists say the soldiers, who were there to police the Roman highway that led up to Syria and Damascus, even had a bathhouse. So the place was more diverse and cosmopolitan than you’d think.

And I’m guessing for a guy from Nazareth, a Roman garrison town would give off vibes of uncleanness or impurity. Especially when he’s first starting out.

So I get this picture in my mind of Jesus teaching in the synagogue. Teaching. Mark makes a point of that. Not preaching. Teaching. To this old classroom teacher, the difference is important. He’s back in Galilee from the Jordan, the desert and the ministry of John the Baptist, and he’s picked up disciples from Capernaum and Bethsaida, just over the line in the Tetrarchy of Herod’s son Philip. He’s just beginning his public ministry.

So I imagine he’s going to have a little stage fright, but as he gets into his lesson, he realizes he’s got everybody’s attention. He’s feeding off the energy of his audience, and he’s thinking this is going better than he thought it would. He’s teaching with authority.

And then, out of nowhere, there’s a disruption. A guy comes up and yells at him. “Are you going to destroy us?” If I’m there in the synagogue, I’m thinking did he just say “us?” It’s got to be unclean spirits, speaking through him. They must travel in packs. “I know who you are,” says the guy (or the spirit, or spirits, speaking through him), “the Holy One of God!”

And Jesus just looks at him, says “Be quiet.”

Like a schoolmaster. A rabbi? They’re teachers. But there’s more to it than that. “Come out of him!” And the guy writhes around, and immediately the spirits — or whatever they were — depart. I don’t want to get too precise about any of this. But it’s powerful stuff. I know who you are, the holy one of God. Cut-and-dried precision about what that means would ruin the story for me.

Cut-and-dried ruins any story for me. When I was in grad school, there was a book we all studied called The Seven Types of Ambiguity. Only seven? I think there’s more. Or fewer. Anyway, I like ambiguity. It gives us a little wiggle room. Room to grow in.

So how was Jesus of Nazareth able to heal people like the guy in the synagogue at Capernaum. I don’t know. It’s enough for me to know that somehow he did, and they were telling the story 50 years later in St. Mark’s day. (Or whoever it was who put the gospel together.) We’re still telling it 2,000 years later. Why? Another good question. And it leads into the next question from dinner church back in 2019.

Is this text good news? Yes. There’s something about the idea of Jesus telling the unclean spirits to shut up and clear out that appeals to me. Can we do the same now? I think we can.

I don’t think I’d ever want to imagine myself in Jesus’ shoes doing an exorcism. Seems a little presumptuous, to put it mildly, and I think in the 21st century I’d be more inclined to recommend counseling anyway. But another pericope for the fourth Sunday after Epiphany offers some guidance.

It’s in Deuteronomy 18:15-20 where Yahweh is speaking to the people of Israel through Moses, and the Lord says to him, (as translated in the NRSV), “I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their fellow Israelites, and I will put my words in his mouth.”

This can be seen as foreshadowing Jesus’ ministry, as we all agreed in the Zoom session, but it also suggests — at least to me — the Holy Spirit can put words in our mouth. Or help us to discern whether ideas that come to us are from God or from an unclean spirit.

The point came up on social media Friday when Fr. James Martin SJ was livestreaming a discussion group on Facebook, and he suggested (at 29:30) the spirit within us can help us discern which is which. The dialog went like this:

Q. How do we prevent demons from invading us in 2021?

A. Well, there are still some out there. I think it’s relying on the Holy Spirit within us and knowing that like Jesus, we can have power over them. We don’t have to be afraid of them. And also confronting them. Right? And naming them.

I can think of a couple of unclean spirits out there whom I’d like to name, but that may be an unclean spirit of my own talking. So … I’ll just refer back to the dinner church question and say it’s good news indeed.

What might this text be asking of me? It always gets back to that, doesn’t it? Martin has a guide to lectio divina “in four easy steps” that ends with something very much like it. “What do I want to do, based on my prayer? Finally, you act.” (The four steps, by the way are “Read, Think, Pray, Act.”) So the text, the gospel story of Jesus in the synagogue at Capernaum, is asking me to take some kind of action.

But what? Turns out Martin has some good advice there, too.

Back in November when then-President Trump was about to lose the election and it looked like we were all in for a period of turmoil, even violence, Martin wrote an article for the Jesuit magazine America headlined “Jesuit tools to help you survive the election (and its aftermath).” In it he mentioned what St. Ignatius called discernment of spirits: “Not only does God want us to make good decisions,” Martin says, “but God will help us do that.” And he brings it home:

How does that help us in the 2020 post-election season? Ignatius said that for those of us on the right path, the spirit that moves us toward God will be experienced one way, while the spirit that moves us away from God will be experienced in another. Simply put, the “good spirit” will be one of calm, uplift and encouragement. The “bad spirit” will cause “gnawing anxiety” and throw up “false obstacles.”

In essence, the good spirit gives hope, the bad spirit despair.

Exactly!

Without wanting to get too political about it, and without naming any unclean spirits lurking around Washington, D.C. (or points south), I think we can all identify a bad spirit of gnawing anxiety and false obstacles since the Nov. 3 election.

But I don’t think Mark’s gospel story of Jesus in the synagogue — or St. Ignatius, or Father Martin for that matter — is asking us to exorcise any latter-day demons. I think, rather, it suggests a way we can discern which of the many bad spirits clamoring for our attention these days have authority and which ones we can — and should — tell to come out of the shadows and shut the hell up.

I know I’m not going to singlehandedly change the tone of our political discourse — that’s been clear since I was a political reporter 30 years ago — but at least I can do a better job of scrolling past posts on my Facebook feed that proclaim, “Biden’s press sec EMBARRASSES Trump from the briefing room.” Or email messages, like this one from a cousin who — shall we say? — doesn’t share my political views, “Fw: In Texas, Being an idiot must be a prerequisite to being a Democrat !!!” The number of exclamation points, if nothing else, would disqualify it anyway.

[Revised and published Feb. 1, 2021]

For future reference: John C. H. Laughlin, “Capernaum: From Jesus’ Time and After,” Biblical Archaeology Review 19, number 5 (Sept.-Oct. 1993), 54ff. https://www.baslibrary.org/biblical-archaeology-review/19/5/10.

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