Mark 1: 21-28
A few years ago I heard about a study at the Yale Center for Child Development, which showed babies animated pictures of a doll hitting and throwing another doll. The babies, I think, were one year or a few months under, and when you look at the video, you can actually see the signs of distress on the babies’ faces, when they were watching the bad doll hurting another doll. When an exact replica of the doll that had been abused was handed to a baby, he or she tenderly held the doll, showing a noticeable level of empathy. But, when a replica of the bad doll---that is, the doll, doing the hitting, was handed to the babies, most of them reacted by hitting the bad doll or throwing it away. The expression of the babies’ faces was certainly one of disapproval. One of the conclusions drawn by the researchers is that there could be an internal moral sense that is there from the very beginning, and though it requires education and discipline, there is something in human beings that recognizes bad or evil behavior even in infancy.
Recognizing what is good and evil is essential for our survival, and yet the human condition is such that we so often miss or misinterpret what is before our eyes. How is it, for example, that whole societies have missed signs of evil? Why was Hitler not recognized as the evil force he was, when early on, his speeches were laced with hatred? How could our own nation, founded on the principle all men are created equal, not only have tolerated but also embraced slavery and still struggles with racism? Furthermore, is not that word men in the Declaration of Independence problematic, since women needed more than the 13th and 14th amendments to get the right to vote, and even today, there are many who do not recognize sexism as evil. So while babies might recognize evil in a doll that hits, we all realize that human beings do not have an undifferentiated view of evil, which is why such issues as war, abortion and torture continue to elicit controversy even among Christians, who are all called to see reality through the lens that is Jesus Christ. Yet, when we look at the reality, we do not all see the same thing or understand it in the same way.
Now today’s reading from Mark’s gospel gives us some ironic perspectives on the recognition of good and evil. Jesus had just begun his public ministry in Capernaum after calling his first disciples. Entering the synagogue on the Sabbath, the text tells us that he taught them “with authority and not as the scribes.” We are not told how Jesus’ teaching differed from the scribes; we are not even told what his teaching was. Though Mark tells us all throughout his gospel that Jesus did a great deal of teaching, he tells us much less about the actual content of the teaching than do Matthew and Luke.
While Jesus was teaching in the synagogue, a man with an unclean spirit entered. We do not know what this unclean spirit was, perhaps some form of mental illness or maybe even epilepsy---but whatever it was, it was something that people back then understood as evil, in the sense that it was seen as contrary to God’s will and intention. Notice who immediately recognized Jesus’ identity as the “the Holy One of God.” It was the unclean spirit, who understood that Jesus had come to destroy what is evil. And what was the first step in this destruction? It was the silencing of the demon. “Be silent,” Jesus commanded, “and come out of him.”
We are only in the first chapter of Mark, and this is already the second recognition of Jesus’ true identity. The first was at Jesus’ baptism, when a voice from heaven recognized him as the beloved Son, and the second recognition is this one by an unclean spirit. There is irony here, which appears throughout Mark’s gospel, and it concerns who is able to recognize Jesus. It is often an unclean spirit or a demon, or an outsider---like a Roman soldier, who at the death of Jesus, recognizes who he is. In today’s lesson the astounded people in the synagogue were clearly impressed by Jesus’ teaching, but being impressed is not the same thing as recognizing who he is.
The recognition of Jesus calls for a radical response--- for or against. And the unclean spirit realized that it must be against Jesus, because Jesus had indeed come to destroy it. Jesus had come to take away its terrible power to do harm to this unfortunate, suffering man. “Be silent, and come out of him,” Jesus commanded, and the spirit obeyed, but not without a terrible struggle, crying out in a loud voice and causing convulsions to the man. It is all high drama, making the point that Jesus has authority even over the unclean spirits. And ironically that authority was first recognized not by the people who were impressed by Jesus, but by the evil spirit who was against Jesus.
What does it mean that the good, the Holy One of God, is immediately recognized by that which is contrary to the goodness and holiness. In Mark’s gospel Jesus’ disciples don’t have a clue about whom Jesus really is; they appear at times almost stupid in their lack of understanding. And yet the demons know what the disciples do not. Why? Well, first of all, evil is often defined as a corruption of the good, and so evil has within itself a knowledge of what has been lost and corrupted. If we consider the mythology of the fall, the story of Satan, we learn that Satan was once the shining star, Lucifer, the light of the angels, and yet he fell. There really is no explanation for this, for his jealously of God, but what we also see in Satan’s story is that he desired more corruption, and so in the book of Genesis, we have the serpent masterminding the fall of Adam and Eve.
Now the story of Adam and Eve is not actual history; it is myth, giving us deep insight into human life, but in history, in actual human life, we do see what can happen when evil confronts the good. If it cannot corrupt the good, it will work to destroy it. We see this most profoundly in the death of Jesus, but we also see it manifested in other places in history.
Now I have told some of my friends that if I could turn into someone else for 24 hours, I would not choose someone extraordinarily good or noble, but on the contrary I would choose someone evil, because when it comes to truly dastardly evil, my imagination simply fails me. I can imagine great goodness, even if I cannot do it, but I cannot understand or imagine what the world must look like to one who would order the slaughter of innocents—such as the Jewish Holocaust or the murder of Muslims by Milosovich in the former nation of Yugoslavia. The love of evil, the desire to destroy other human beings simply escape me.
Roland Freisler was President of the People’s Court in Nazi Germany. He was so corrupted that he had this evil drive, a kind of instinct, to go after innocence and youth. When the hard core resistance fighters would come before Freisler, of course, he gave them the death sentence, but he did not play with them. Oh he hated them, as evil always hates the opposition, but their lack of naivete did not bring out the same level of malevolence whenever he confronted youthful idealism or innocence. He loved to watch their reactions as they slowly began to realize that their lives actually did hang in the balance. Initially it did not occur to these accused that what they considered trivial actions would be punished by death.
There was this young woman, barely 21, Marianne Elise Kurchner, who landed in Freisler’s court for telling a joke at the munitions factory where she worked. The joke went that Hitler and Goring (head of the SS and second in command after Hitler) were standing atop the Berlin Radio Tower and Hitler told Goring he wanted to put a smile on the faces of Berliners. And so Goring said, Why don’t you jump? Apparently a co-worker reported her, and she ended up in court, having no idea that her life was under threat. Freisler took this perverse pleasure in playing with her, asking her questions about her life. And she told him that her husband had recently been killed in the Eastern Front, and she was so distraught that she had been unable to laugh or smile. And so this horrid joke about the death of the Fuhrer put a smile on your face, Freisler asked. I just want the war to be over, Sir, she said. I don’t want other women to suffer like me. And you would want the war to be over at the expense of the Fuhrer’s life? All Marianne could say was that she had no desire to see anyone dead. It was just a joke, Your Honor, she kept repeating over and over again. To her that was all it was---a joke. And for that joke Marianne was guillotined the next day.
Such cruelty and hatred are simply beyond us. We fail in our effort to understand. But understanding involves rationality, and perhaps, what is so profoundly disturbing about radical evil is that it is not rational; it is a defiance of the deepest order of our humanity. Evil is disordered thought, disordered feeling and disordered spirit, and if there is no deep order to evil, perhaps that is why the very first thing Jesus said to the unclean spirit is: “Be silent.” Be silent, because there is no explanation that can make evil truly understandable, let alone acceptable. Be silent, Jesus said, and after the silence came another command---Come out of him---and then with a great convulsive fight came the healing. Sometimes that is how healing comes---with a great convulsive fight.
About Our Pastor:
I am very happy to be here at the First Church of Christ, Congregational in Unionville, CT. I arrived here in July, 2017, and have been warmly received. This is a wonderful church community. I have been an ordained minister for over three decades now, and I consider it a great privilege and challenge to be called to serve. Before coming to Unionville I served churches on Long Island, Middletown, CT and then ten years in New Haven, Center Church on the Green. My home is in Middletown, where I live with my husband, Donald Oliver, who is a professor of molecular biology at Wesleyan University. We have four grown children, two boys and two girls and three granddaughters, the youngest born on October 3, 2017!