Remember the comedian Flip Wilson’s stock-in-trade, “The devil made me do it?” Guilty as sin, the character he played would shift the blame for his own failings to the ever-lurking devil. The line came originally, I assume, from the Bible, in which Adam blames Eve and she blames the serpent. Convenient scapegoats! The TV evangelists and their ilk employ the idea very profitably: convince the people that they are being pursued by the devil and then tell them what they need to do to get God more actively present on their side. Hefty money donations help, of course. You have to wonder when such ignorance and deception will end. Let’s hope it will be sooner than we have reason to expect.
What do we do, however, with St. Mark’s report, heard in today’s gospel passage, that the apostles went off on the mission Jesus was entrusting to them and “expelled many demons”? Some people interpret that literally and cannot be persuaded otherwise. Others recognize that the Scriptures, in order to be correctly understood, must be viewed as very much influenced by the limited scientific knowledge of their time and contain, therefore, abundant factual error along with childish notions that even today’s children understand perfectly well.
Here’s an example: knowing absolutely nothing about congenital diseases, or the nature and cause of epilepsy or mental disorders and other such health problems, they simply concluded that all of these were caused either by God as punishment for the sins of human beings or by the devil, whose nature and reason for being were the harassment of the human race and the destruction of the gift of life that comes from the Creator God. In that belief system, what else could the apostles and disciples have thought than that they were called to continue the war against the evil powers that hated God and were demonstrating their presence in the miseries of innocent human beings?
More sophisticated than they were, do we dismiss these references as unworthy of us or do we find in them timeless truth? I choose the latter option, as I believe virtually all of us have chosen. We talk about demons in our lives, not in the same sense in which the word is used by our ancestors, but in an updated sense that is true. People today regularly speak of addictions as demons, meaning that there are areas of their personal lives that are virtually out of control and have become destructive in such a way that they appear to have an independent life of their own. We go so far as to refer to them as living within us, as possessing us.
These “demons” are not always in the categories of chemical substances; there are so many others that reach the same intensity of compulsion and that elude our control. And we are victimized by these too, and against them we can be almost totally helpless. We believe, as he asked us to, that his power can give us mastery over these demons, if we are open to it.
Some of these demons work through mouths & tongues with chronic criticism, put-downs, and humiliation. Others have more to do with denial & default, like the withholding of affirmation and the failure to listen with attention to the mind & heart of others. And then there are demons that function within materialism & consumerism, insensitivity to the cries of the poor, the disenfranchised and the oppressed. A virtual mob of them keep us from forgiving, forgetting and reconciling.
No need to expand the list; the point is made, I hope. Our demons are behavioral habits, dispositions and attitudes that we may actually despise and regret and, at the same time, with which we have made peace – or at least a cold war.
We need help, not only psychological, but spiritual. In prayer, we should ask the healing Jesus to do for us what we seem unable to do for ourselves.