Spirited - Joseph Wood

  In this week’s Gospel reading, Jesus is accused by the unnamed crowds of having “an unclean spirit” (Mark 3:21).* Thus, the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) of the Bible neatens—even elides—the Biblical account, emphasizing the parallel with Jesus’ later reference to those who blaspheme “against the Holy Spirit” by claiming that it’s an “unclean spirit” (3:29-30). In fact, the Greek of Verse 21 is ἐξέστη (exeste), which is a unique variation of the word ἐξίστημι (existemi) and means something along the lines of astonished, amazed, or otherwise out of sorts. (Verse 29 is a much more straightforward Πνεῦμα ἀκάθαρτον [pneuma akatharton] reference to a spirit unclean or impure.**) It literally means that one is removed from a standing position, so I suppose that bowled over could be an authentic, similarly idiomatic translation. Whatever the case may be, the situation is unsettling enough that his family immediately sets out to restrain him when they hear about it. Given that the scene is set by the people crowding in so close that they were unable to eat, perhaps our Lord and Savior is just a little hangry.

  But I digress. The real challenge of the periscope is figuring out quite what Christ means when he is talking about blaspheming against the Holy Spirit and why it’s the one unforgivable sin, set apart from “the sins and the blasphemes” that will be forgiven of us (3:28). What is this misspeaking that’s so egregious that Jesus declares it beyond God’s gracious mercy? The NRSV translation choices seem to suggest that he’s naming a relatively common occurrence: the inability of people to recognize something new going on around them. Well, recognize such revelations truly. Because the crowds, and even Christ’s family, are able to recognize that something is different about what’s going on in his ministry, but they respond to it with rejection and fear. They are convinced that he is astonishing, even supernaturally so—and not in a good way. They hear his parables, they observe the community that he is forming around himself, and they are unable to name it as anything but dangerous.

  They’re not wrong. As I’ve referenced before, the Late Classical world had a different understanding of possession from the modern one—at least, it usually did. Whether daemon or otherwise, the experience was morally neutral. A person could just as easily be possessed by the Divine as by the demonic. (It isn’t all Reagan spitting up split-pea soup.) So, the fact that the scribes of the Gospel of Mark are only able to see Beelzebub, only able to name one possibility in the danger posed by and to Jesus, is fraught with unexpected assumptions on their part. They see a power beyond their understanding, and all they can do is condemn it. In short, it seems to be the case that they’ve confused wellness with comfort. They know that whatever is going on will upset the authority they've consolidated, the rules that they’ve learned to play by, and it bowls them over. I think we can safely join with Jesus here and paraphrase Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound (Luke 4:23): “Physician, heal thy self.”

  After all, the adjective used to describe the Holy Spirit in Greek is ἅγιον (hagion, Mark 3:29), which is an alpha-privative form just like the akatharon of the unclean spirit a verse later. Whereas the latter means impure, the former means unearthly. The Spirit is holy because it is set apart, because it is literally not-of-this-world. The difference from the norm is still there in both terms, and the question is more of direction than kind. The Holy Spirit is dangerous too. Our God is a great and terrible God—a jealous God, even. But the danger of the Holy Spirit is that it will lift us out of all of our petty preconceptions, all of the ways that we keep ourselves comfortably isolated. It will throw us into new configurations, forcing us to name all those around us as our brother, our sister, and our mother. The adverse, on the other hand, will only bring us low, trapping us within the boundaries that we try to stay safe behind. It is no accident that the two metaphors that Jesus uses for the demonic of “a kingdom” (3:24) and “a house” (3:25, 27) are ones of earthly stability and status quo. As we think about the deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, as we enter into Pride month, I challenge each of us and all of us to live into that difference. To care for our brothers, sisters, and mothers, whatever their demons, but to also be able to recognize that not all that is dangerous is anathema. Sometimes the danger is to our preconceptions, and we need to be ready to live into something holy and wholly different, something brilliant and new. Otherwise, we might just miss the Holy Spirit, and God only knows where that would leave us.


*Updated 06/10/18: In my gusto, I apparently misread the lectionary. The NRSV text of Mark 3:21 actually reads: “He has gone out of his mind.” (Which is, admittedly, a much less interpretative translation.) I apologize for the error, though I believe my overall perspective on this passage still works.

**akatharon is an alpha-privative form of katharos, meaning clean or purged. The latter definition is largely ignored because there is no easy English parallel to a prefixed negation of purged, unlike impure and unclean.