Jesus and Demonic Forces
Deut 18:15-20; 1Cor 7:32-35; Mk 1:21-28
“All were amazed and asked one another, “What is this? A new teaching with authority. He commands even the unclean spirits and they obey him.”” (Mk 1:27)
The first reading of today announces the coming of a prophet who will speak in the name of God. “I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their kin, and will put my words into his mouth.” The gospel of today tells us that this prophet is Jesus. His message is new and is proclaimed “with authority”. His word is effective and frees people from the forces of evil that rule them. The first act of Jesus of Nazareth in the gospel of Mark is the contact with unclean spirits or demonic forces. As we can see, Jesus confronts a man who was possessed by demonic forces. The devil in him rejects the New Order of Jesus violently. He fights, resists, and even begins to shout because he wants to continue to rule over his victim. For this reason, Jesus engages in a spiritual warfare over these evil forces, as a key component of his mission to the world. Let us, therefore, look at the whole concept and functioning of unclean spirits in the world of the Gospels.
1. CASTING OUT DEMONS – A SIGN THAT THE KINGDOM OF GOD HAS COME: The driving out of demons was a prominent feature of the ministry of Jesus. This was a key sign that the kingdom of God has come and that God’s Spirit was mightily at work through him. In the 3 Synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke Jesus is accused of casting out demons using the power of Beelzebul, the prince of demons. All the evangelists report that Jesus used this occasion as a moment to proclaim the coming and the force of the Kingdom of God over the devil.
Matthew 12:28 – “But if it is by the spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.”
Mark 3:20 – “And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but is coming to an end.”
Luke 11:20 – “But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you”
Constantly, we see Jesus casting out demons. Jesus made this not only part of his earthly ministry but also as part of the package of authority he gave to his disciples during their commissioning. Mark 6:7 says: “And he called unto him the twelve, and began to send them forth by two by two; and gave them power over unclean spirits” (also Matthew 10:1). They drove out demons as part of the gospel’s liberation of the oppressed. Luke 10:17-20: The 72 returned with joy, saying, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name”. The Acts of the Apostles also shows them driving out demons: In Acts 5:16; 10:38, Peter testifies about Jesus’ power to cast out devils; and in Acts 16:18; 19:12: Paul and the other apostles performed miracles and casted out unclean spirits.
2. JESUS’ AUTHORITY WAS MANIFESTED PARTLY IN CASTING OUT UNCLEAN SPIRITS: As we have seen, Jesus made his warfare against evil spirit an essential part of his earthly ministry. He wielded authority over these demons. Jesus had such a commanding authority over principalities and powers that he could simply command them in these words: “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit” (Mark 5:8).
These unclean spirits recognized this power of Jesus over them. Mark 3:11 says: “And unclean spirits, when they saw him, fell down before him, and cried, saying, Thou art the Son of God.”
This power was not only recognized by these demons. The Jews also noticed it. Hence, Mark reports in today’s gospel: “All were amazed and asked one another, “What is this? A new teaching with authority. He commands even the unclean spirits and they obey him.”” (Mk 1:27)
As a result, people with unclean spirits began looking for him to be healed.
The impact of his power was so strong that the Pharisees protested, “This man drives out demons only by the power of Beelzebul, the prince of demons.” (Matthew 12:22-24).
This notwithstanding, as far as Jesus is concerned, IT IS THE SPIRIT OF GOD THAT CASTS OUT UNCLEAN SPIRITS (Matthew 12:28).
3. THE NATURE OF DEMONIC POSSESSION IN THE NEW TESTAMENT: Demonic possessions come in different ways:
In the Bible, animals can be possessed. In Matthew 8:30, we have an episode where demons possess pigs.
We find possession of a single individual by multiple demons. Luke 8:30 describes a man who was possessed by many demons termed as a “legion”, that is, a unit of 6,000 soldiers.
Demons can grant special powers to people. In Acts 16:16 a woman was given the power to foretell the future by an evil spirit dwelling in her.
Other passages describe how demons harm people. Luke 9:39 apparently describes a case of epilepsy caused by a demon, but this appears to be an exception.
Another instance, in Luke 11:14, tells us about a person who was unable to speak because of an indwelling demon.
Luke 13:10-13 describes a woman who had been unable to straighten her back for almost 2 decades because of an evil spirit.
Mark 5:4 describes how an indwelling spirit causes its victim to have superhuman strength, so that breaks fetters and iron chains.
Further, Matthew 12:45 describes how a spirit left a person, but returned with seven others who were more wicked than the original spirit was.
These are evidence that presence and belief in the existence and activities of evil spirits in the NT world was very strong.
4. DRIVING OUT DEMONS IN THE NAME OF JESUS: Jesus performed exorcism with ease: simply by his authoritative word. He did not make any magical incantations nor did he perform special rites in order to drive out the devil from a possessed. In fact, with one exception, Jesus simply ordered the evil spirit to depart, and the demon immediately complied. Jesus passed this power and authority to his disciple. After his resurrection, Jesus’ disciple did exorcisms in IN THE NAME OF JESUS. In Acts 16:16, Paul exorcised a slave girl who was possessed by a “spirit of divination” by commanding the spirit to leave “in the name of Jesus.” However, it is worthy to note that not everybody can carry out exorcism, and that some exorcisms required special preparation.
5. SPIRITUAL WARFARE: Nowadays, God’s people still suffer from the grip of several evil and unclean spirits. Christ is present among us in the Church’s ministers. What does this mean?
a) The healing mission of the Church: During his earthly ministry, Jesus did not only preach the word of God. He also attended to the sick and cured them. This explains the Church’s pastoral mission of opening hospitals and procuring vital wellness (body and soul) of the people God. Since her foundation, the Church has always sought to bring vital healing to, and alleviate suffering from, the people to whom she preaches the word.
b) The devil exists: Secondly, we must acknowledge that the devil exists. He is a fallen angel. He knows what he has lost and he is by nature jealous. So, he tries to recruit adherents among Christians. His existence is an undeniable reality. St. Peter cautions us: “Be calm but vigilant for your enemy, the devil, is prowling round like a roaring lion, looking for someone to eat” (1Pet 5:8). The Church puts in place certain means of combatting the devil.
b) Simple exorcism: Exorcism is a spiritual tool used to drive out demons or unclean spirits. It is a powerful arsenal in spiritual warfare used to liberate those under a demonic influence. Every priest has the power to bless and blessing is chasing away evil. At Baptism, the priest or deacon exorcises by chasing the evil one away from the newly baptized to make room for Christ. At Baptism, the candidate is asked: “Do you renounce Satan and all his works?” and the response is: “yes, I do!” THIS IS SIMPLE EXORCISM.
c) Solemn exorcism: It is a ministry that only the Bishop can give to a particular priest of his diocese (The Canon Law is very clear about this – Canon 1172). Therefore, if a priest performs solemn exorcism without the authority of his bishop, such a priest is not being obedient to his Bishop. The exorcist priest must be a devoted, prayerful, courageous, ascetic, humble individual since the devil could also overpower him. Remember, not even the disciples of Jesus could cast out all demons! Once they were unable to rid a boy of an evil spirit that was apparently causing the child to be both mute and epileptic (Mark 9:14-29). After casting it out himself, Jesus explained that such demons can only be cast out through prior prayer and fasting. Similarly, not everyone can perform exorcism. In Acts 19:13 some seven itinerant Jews attempted to exorcise demons commanding them “In the name of Jesus, whom Paul preaches, I command you to come out.” They failed. All were attacked and beaten by the demon-controlled man who ripped their clothes off. A priest assigned to do exorcism must, therefore, prepare himself well for such a spiritual warfare. In a Catholic exorcism, the priest, on behalf of the exorcee, stands in the place of Christ. The priest is the mediator. He exorcises the sins of the exorcee and defeats Satan.
d) Seeing the devil everywhere and in every situation is not normal
There is a mistaken phenomenon of people imagining that all their problems are caused by the devil. They blame the devil for practically every mishap that they encounter. For these incidents, they tend to believe that they need an exorcist to cleanse them from their problems. For such assumptions, it is good that we make a few clarifications.
There is a big difference between demon POSSESSION and PSYCHIATRIC DISORDERS. A person who is possessed never tells you he/she is possessed, just as a mad person cannot decipher that he/she is mad. The mere fact that a person comes to tell a priest that he/she possessed is a good sign that he/she is NOT. Such persons may need only a simple blessing and prayer, NOT EXORCISM. Some people imagine that once they are sick, the devil must be the cause; and so, they rush to the priest or a pastor for exorcism. The Church requests that such people should first go to the hospital for medical advice and treatment (they may even have cerebral malaria). A priest can be called in for anointing, if necessary. In cases like these, the sick person should first of all be brought to Christ so that in confession he/she can turn to God for solace and forgiveness. Superstition should not be the solution. It is unfortunate that some Christians, including priests and pastors (Men of God), have used such occasions for money-making. That is, they impose on the sick the buying of olive oil, ‘anointing water’, coloured candles, sacramentals and the offering of several Holy Masses at high financial costs. This is what the Church calls ‘SIMONY’.
e) Demon possession is not that simple: The devil cannot just possess a good and holy Christian. The Devil cannot find a place in a person who is already the Temple of the Holy Spirit. The devil can easily take up residence in a sinful soul. More often than not, people who claim to be possessed may be facing difficult economic, social, family or marital and other problems. For a true possession to take place, the possessed is always in accord with the devil through adhesion to a satanic cult, participation in magical incantations or signature of a pact with the devil. In such cases, recourse must be made to an exorcist priest delegated for such practice by the Bishop. But before proceeding with exorcism, the authorized priest must investigate to ensure that the symptoms of this said possession are not rather due to psychosis or an obsession or nervousness.
6. CHRIST IS THE DIVINE HEALER: Our fight against the devil can only be won with Christ, the divine healer. It does not consist in the recitation of some quasi-magical prayer or other incantations drawn from a series of formulas found in books of doubtful origin. In fact Ephesians 6:10-20. outlines the process to fight the EVIL ONE: “Finally, be strong in the Lord, and in the strength of His might. Put on the full armour of God, that you may be able to stand firm against the schemes of the devil. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore, take up the full armour of God that you may be able to resist in the evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand firm therefore, having girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the preparation of the gospel of peace; in addition to all, taking up the shield of faith with which you will be able to extinguish all the flaming missiles of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. With all prayer and petition pray at all times in the Spirit, and with this in view, be on the alert with all perseverance and petition for all the saints…”
This is a call to be holy and to be ready to win our spiritual battles. As the gospel of today has taught us, holiness can destabilize demonic forces. We saw the demon calling Jesus the “Holy One of God.” This shows that attachment to Christ sends the EVIL ONE fleeing. We must put on the amour of God so as to better resist the tricks of the devil; because there is no true Christian life without the fight against Satan. The fight of Jesus with the possessed man in the gospel represents the rebellion of all the evil forces in people which do not want to be dislodge and thrown out. It is also a symbol of the difficulties encountered by a person who wants to get rid of Satan and his bad habits. The Word of God puts the devil to flight. Given that man does not live by bread alone, but also by the word that comes from God’s mouth, we should take time to read the Bible regularly. Let us pray regularly for the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, that she may protect us from the devil whose head she crushed with the heel of her foot (Rev. 12:1ff).