January 29, 2012
Perhaps the most useful question we could ask about today’s Gospel is: What is an unclean spirit doing in a synagogue? It was commonly accepted in the world of Jesus that evil moved around the world in the form of unclean spirits or demons. Sickness, family trouble, even natural disasters such as storms and earthquakes were the result of these evil spirits at work. So why is this unclean spirit in a synagogue? A synagogue was a holy place, a place where Jews gathered to study the law and to praise God. Jesus enters the synagogue and teaches with authority. We have a holy place, a holy assembly, and a holy teaching. In the midst of all this goodness, a demon cries out, “What do you have to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” What is this spirit doing there? We can certainly presume that he did not come to listen to Jesus’ teaching.
I would like to suggest to you that the Gospel situates the unclean spirit in the synagogue to teach us something about evil. Sometimes we think that evil can be limited to only certain places, that unclean spirits can be restricted to the graveyard, the deep woods, or where thieves gather. Sometimes we imagine that if we are very good people, if we love and act with justice, if we have faith in God, then we can keep evil away from where we are. This Gospel warns us that such thinking is naïve. If an unclean spirit can shout out in a holy synagogue and in the presence of Jesus the Messiah, then evil can appear anywhere. Evil in the form of sickness, anxiety, even in natural disasters seems to have the ability to move freely throughout the world. It attacks people indiscriminately: the rich and the poor, the moral and the immoral, those who believe in God and those who do not. Evil seems to have access to every place and person.
Now, two important truths flow from this insight. The first is this: When evil touches our lives, we should not automatically conclude that we have done something wrong. When a family member is killed in a tragic accident, when someone we love is diagnosed with cancer, when we have to deal with a death, addiction, or divorce, we should not necessarily conclude, “If only I had been a better person, I could have kept this evil away.” Evil has more access than we imagine. I assure you if you go down to the Cleveland Clinic and look in the cancer ward, not everyone there will be a criminal. If you survey the people who were so tragically killed last year in the tsunami, you would find that many of them were wonderful people who prayed regularly. Evil moves around our world and has access to every person and place.
This leads to the second important truth: If evil has as such access to our lives, then our strategy cannot be how can I prevent evil from coming, but rather how do I deal with evil when it arrives? If we cannot keep evil away, then we must ask, “How can I confront it?” Here is where faith is helpful. We believe in faith that we have access to the power of God, a power that is stronger than the power of evil. So when evil touches our life, we can draw upon our faith in God and ask for God’s assistance. Faith allows us to have courage in the face of sickness, to have hope after divorce, to find strength even in failure and peace in the face of death. The same Jesus who drove the demon out of the synagogue is our Lord. We can turn to him and ask for his strength as we face the demons in our lives.
If an unclean spirit can appear in a holy synagogue, evil can touch us in any place. Therefore, when evil enters our lives, it does not make sense to ask: “What did I do to invite the demon in?” Instead, we should turn to the Lord and ask him to drive the demon out.