I haven’t seen the recent film release “American Sniper,” but I’ve read a few of the reviews. This Sunday’s Gospel reading reminded me of the plot summary contained in those reviews.
The central character of the movie is a man who became a Navy SEAL, and was deployed to Iraq after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon. His deployment created both a geographical and an emotional distance between himself and his family. Eventually, he had to reexamine both his family life and his military career, and ask himself which of those lives represented his true self. The Liturgy of the Word this Sunday contains two examples of similarly divided lives and loyalties.
In the second reading St. Paul wrote, “I should like you to be free of anxieties. An unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord. But a married man is anxious about the things of the world, how he may please his wife, and he is divided.” (1 Cor 7:32-34) I’m unconvinced that St. Paul’s advice is as wise as he thought.
During the time that I served as a college campus minister I found that the top priority for all undergraduate students is dating. When they’re not in a dating relationship undergrads worry about being alone. When they are in a dating relationship they worry about the future of the relationship they’re in. Perhaps, in St. Paul’s time, being unmarried allowed one to be “free of anxieties.” (1 Cor 7:32) Today, however, any relationship can be the cause of a divided and conflicted mind. (1 Cor 7:34)
The man whom Jesus encountered in the Synagogue in today’s reading from Mark also had a divided and conflicted mind. He is described as having an “unclean spirit.” (Mark 1:23) At the time, people understood their lives as often under the influence of spiritual powers beyond their control. Some of those spiritual powers were considered good (if they produced positive effects in one’s life); others were considered “unclean” (if they produced undesirable effects in one’s life).
The manner in which Mark relates the encounter is worth our attention. The man with the unclean spirit said to Jesus, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!” (Mark 1:24) Some Scripture commentators suggest that the man’s use of the plural pronoun (“What have you to do with us? Have you come to destroy us?), is a portrayal of a divided life, a man conflicted.
I think it is very interesting that the “unclean spirit” recognized Jesus immediately. This is, again, a cultural perspective of Jesus’ contemporaries. The spirits, both good and bad, that influenced human behavior were viewed as being more powerful than human persons; their greater power gave them influence over people’s lives. In this encounter in the Synagogue the unclean spirit’s power allowed it to perceive Jesus’ true identity; the spirit recognized Jesus as having great power within himself.
In contrast, the relative powerlessness of the other people present prevented them from recognizing Jesus – until they saw him exercise his power over the spirit. At first, they “were astonished at his teaching.” (Mark 1:22) After seeing him heal the man with the unclean spirit, his astonishing teaching began to make sense. They said, “What is this? This is new, authoritative teaching! He gives orders to unclean spirits, and they listen!” (Mark 1:27) The people’s exclamation indicates the point of the story: if unclean spirits listen to Jesus’ commands, shouldn’t everyone?
The various references to spirits in the Gospels are often misunderstood, and given too much importance. The author of Mark’s Gospel was not trying to convince us of the existence and power of spirits. The spirits were merely literary foils used to convince us of the existence and power of Jesus. In Jesus’ time, just as in our time, there were skeptics who doubted the claims that Jesus was the Messiah sent by God. Mark’s Gospel offers help to those who doubt. Jesus was not just another teacher; he was a teacher whose words conveyed divine power. That divine power healed inner conflicts as well as divisions between people.
It’s easy to say, and agree with, the statement, “Everyone should listen to Jesus’ words.” It’s rarely so easy to do the actual listening effectively. Life’s struggles, and our inner conflicts, can make it difficult for us to do what we know we should do. All Catholics would agree that daily prayer with the Scriptures is a virtuous, necessary activity; not all Catholics afford themselves that activity. All people agree that to forgive one’s enemies is at the heart of Jesus’ teaching; not all want to get so close to the heart of Jesus’ teaching in their actual habits.
Those of us who want to live faithful lives find ourselves divided and conflicted from time to time. We know where to find the source of healing for our divided minds: Jesus’ word gave the man with the unclean spirit a mind made whole. Listening to Jesus’ word will provide the same effects of divine power in our lives, and there is hope for those who struggle to listen.
The first step toward listening to the Word is to want to do so. The unclean spirit heard Jesus’ command because it recognized power and authority in him. The witnesses to the healing marveled at his teaching, and saw his authority. Did you notice that, at this point in the Gospel, Mark has not yet explained the content of Jesus’ teaching? The author put a great deal of effort into depicting Jesus’ teaching as new, authoritative and powerful, but was slow to offer examples of that teaching. The Gospel author knew that one must first develop a desire to listen.
If you find that Jesus’ teaching is sometimes too challenging to practice in your life, you are not alone. If you want help to move toward practicing Jesus’ teaching, there is help in the lessons learned by earlier generations of believers. Mark’s Gospel intends to offer just such help. The accumulated wisdom of the first several generations of believers is this: before you can truly listen to the Word, you must desire to hear. Desire for the Word is the first step toward single-minded faith, and the first step toward experiencing Jesus’ divine power. If you are attracted to Jesus’ teaching, but find that you are conflicted about putting it fully into practice, begin by cultivating a desire to hear the Word.