Context for meaning, by Pastor Noel

January 28, 2018     Epiphany 4, B


      Interesting readings today, aren’t they? As I read them over this week, and as I heard them this morning, I wondered how they would sound to you—what you might make of them.

      First we hear Moses talking to a God who is vengeful, and even violent. Then the Psalm gives us a God of compassion and generosity. This is like flip sides of a coin—how can this be?

      Then Paul writes about “food sacrificed to idols” —not a common topic of conversation for us! And Jesus exorcises a demon, and maybe your minds wandered to the movie screen with that.

      In understanding Scripture, getting to the reasons for these words, context is everything.

      Our world is so different from the time when these old, old stories were finally put into writing, and some of them just don’t seem to make sense.

      Context for Moses: he is a tribal leader of a group of wandering nomads, just gathered under one God, and heading slowly to a promised land. Here he is giving part of a very long list of rules and regulations for the people to live by.

      He is warning the people to ignore the other gods and the ways of the people around them, and listen to messengers from the one true God. His words are harsh because their way of life was harsh.

      Context for Paul: it is thousands of years later, and there is still the conflict of beliefs among different peoples.

      In the marketplace today we may read labels to see if food is organic or not. In Paul’s day you could buy meat from animals that had been sacrificed. These were not animals sacrificed to our God in the Temple. They had been offered up to other gods, the “idols” as Paul calls them.

      Paul knows that some folks seeing him eat this meat would think he was honoring those idols, and that could shake their faith, so he won’t do it.

      That may sound silly—of course there aren’t any idols! So what’s the problem? But think of this as you watch that football game coming up—don’t we still get overly involved about our sports?

      Context for Jesus: his first miracle in the Gospel of Mark. It is the Sabbath, the holy day of worship and no work, and Jesus does work—healing. It was, in fact, permitted to heal or help on the Sabbath, so Jesus is doing holy work on a holy day.

      It seems as if this is a simple healing story—Jesus calls out the evil spirits and the person in healed.

      But right away there is probably a problem for us. Evil spirits? Evil spirits that talk? So, we can see that the context for this story 2000 years ago is not our context today.

      In Jesus’ day, and long before, and long after, the worldview, the context, was that the world of material things and the world of the spirit were one.

      So there are lots of stories about spirits, sometimes called angels, and of casting out, or exorcising, the spirits when they are harmful.

      The good spirit of the person is then restored.

      In Jesus’ day there were apparently many men who wandered around as teachers, healers, dealers in magic. Mark, and the other gospels, and Paul’s writings, too, show us that Jesus was far more than a travelling magician.

      Mark also shows us that this story is about far more than a simple healing.

      Our English translations have the people being “astounded” and “amazed” but the Greek words show much strong emotions. The people there watching Jesus in the synagogue are in a panic!

      What is happening, they see, is much more that a single person being healed. Jesus is changing the assumed order of life. Jesus is challenging the power structure of his culture.

      He has not come to heal only one or two, but to heal the whole broken society of his day, and of our day, too.

      One of the commentaries I read said that exorcism was the chief characteristic of Jesus’ mission as messiah. He was not only casting out demons that make people ill, he was casting out the demons in the structures of the culture.

      Walter Wink writes that all human endeavors were thought to have a soul, a spirit, an angel, as the foundation of their being. Individuals, groups, corporations, nations—every part of life was part of a material world and a spiritual world.

      And that spirit can become harmful, maybe even evil, and need to be cast so the soul can be restored and renewed and God like again.

      Our scientific thinking may scoff at that kind of old fashioned, simple, thinking, but I think it makes sense, and I think there are lots of exorcisms that would help us today.

      We could exorcise hatred and bigotry. This is the 75th anniversary of the holocaust. I read that if we kept just a moment of silence for each of the 6 million killed, we’d be silent for over 11 years!

      This gospel story has a context for me—connected to the exorcism and the holocaust.

      A young friend of mine has a rare kind of epilepsy. It is not caused by an evil spirit, but by a part of his brain. The young man in the gospel may have had epilepsy. He was fortunate to have Jesus as his healer.     

      My young friend, Jared, is fortunate that he has a healer with a special procedure that will “take out” the affected part of his brain. His name tells me that he is Jewish, and I am grateful for his expertise, and that he wasn’t lost to us in the holocaust.

      I am grateful for his medical experience, and grateful, too, for healing that I have experienced through prayer. Grateful that healing is not just one or the other, but both/and.

      We are a long way from living as the kingdom of God that is all around us and in us. In the kingdom of God there is compassion, care for all neighbors, everyone has access to what they need, and those in authority use power to lift up the lowly, feed the hungry, heal divisions.

      May we exorcise everything else.

       Maybe we just need a few exorcisms to restore the good, and bring it to reality for everyone.


The Rev. Noel Bailey

The Reverend Noel Bailey was born in Providence, is now back in RI for the 4th time, and hopes that this stay is longer than some of the others. She was ordained Priest at St. Michael's, Bristol, in May 1988, More details