One Saturday morning almost two thousand years ago, a locally famous young man walked into the synagogue of his adopted hometown. We aren’t told what he said, but we are told what he did, and how the people responded with amazement to the authority with which he acted.
Our question is largely the same as the one asked by those good people gathered for Synagogue all those years ago. Who is this Jesus person? What does he want from us? And what does he offer?
Let’s set the scene. Synagogues were the gathering places of the local community – the term “synagogue” includes the Greek words for “together” and “talk”, and at it means something like “assembly.”
However, rather than the Synagogue, the key site for worshipping God during Jesus’ earthly life was the Temple in Jerusalem – you may remember we discussed the conflict between the Samaritans and the Jews about where it was legitimate to offer sacrifice to God. So, rather than a local church, perhaps the closest equivalent to today’s setting might be the local community hall in a little country town. Everything which needs to happen indoors and includes more people than you can comfortably fit in a loungeroom, happens in the synagogue.
We don’t have very strong historical evidence for how they were organised, but it looks as though the synagogues of the time were a lot less formal than they are now. The Scriptures were read and discussed. There was presumably some sort of organising group, but it was apparently quite normal for various people to offer insight and teaching and commentary on the Scriptures. The “Scribes” the passage mentions were experts in the Scriptures, but it’s probably wrong to think of them as being ordained like a minister. It seems to have been an expression of respect for learning, rather than an office.
It also seems likely that basically anyone in good standing with the community could offer their thoughts on Scripture, so we shouldn’t imagine the scene as Jesus seizing the pulpit and engaging in a preach-in like a sixties radical. It wasn’t the fact of Jesus’ teaching that astonished people. Rather, it was the way in which he did it.
Part of what it seemed to mean for the whole community to gather was the presence of the “man with the unclean spirit.” There’s no indication that anyone was particularly surprised about him being there. It was evidently an inclusive sort of place, which welcomed people on the margins, like churches in our current world.
So far, so normal. The community comes together to study Scripture, and a locally famous Bible teacher stands up to have his say. I can all too easily imagine that it involved a bit of community singing – something from the psalms perhaps – and then, I don’t know, whatever the 1st Century equivalent of a biscuit and a cup of tea was.
You can see the roots of our own customs here: this world which seems so alien at first glance is, it turns out, very similar to what we do here in this building, week after week.
In almost all respects. But not precisely. Let’s turn to the elephant in the room: the exorcism.
Perhaps I’ve had a bit of a sheltered life, but, even though I’ve spent time in the Charismatic world, I have never witnessed anything like that. The whole thing is startling. The disruption from someone yelling in the middle of the meeting; the supernatural knowledge of the unclean spirit, which knows that Jesus is the “holy one from God”; Jesus’ powerful authority telling the spirit to be silent and come out; and the dramatic convulsions and the “loud cry” with which the spirit came out of the man.
The people, the passage says, were amazed, as well they might be.
But not, I think, at the fact of the exorcism. There were many itinerant healers – which is what you would expect in a world before modern medicine. We could spend a long time unpicking the differences between ancient and contemporary understandings of health and healing, but really the main point in the story is that there was some sort of struggle going on – between the forces of wholeness, integration, and good on the one hand, and the forces of separation, disintegration, and evil on the other.
In other words, the man’s illness is understood here as a personal force, which Jesus commands to leave the man – which it does.
This gives us a window into the world which Jesus and his contemporaries inhabited: a world in which a war between the forces of good and the forces of evil was being waged.
This isn’t a very popular way to see the world for us. We have, I think, internalized the message about praying for our enemies and doing good to those who hurt us that we are in danger of rationalising away the whole uncomfortable fact that evil is real.
The forces of dis-integration, of selfishness, of putting ourselves at the centre of the universe, and of making others nothing more than bit players in our own private drama – or of squibbing the challenge to live as citizens of God’s reign – are real and at work in each one of us. Apathy, idolatry, self-contempt – I could go on. But you get my drift. The forces opposed to God and God’s kingdom are real, powerful, and at work in all of us.
The man with the unclean spirit in the midst of the congregation – of course he wasn’t out of place there. He is all of us. Perhaps that’s why his name isn’t recorded: so that we can’t point the finger at the evil-doer and, like the pharisee in one of Jesus stories, thank God that we’re not like that sinner over there.
We, just like the man in the story, are the not-so-proud owners of our own personal unclean spirits, and they will not go quietly.
I think that’s why the spirit knows who Jesus is. Something in us recognizes God’s complete claim on us. The call to responsibility lies heavily on us, and we see Jesus and his life of taking complete responsibility, and we shudder. No wonder the spirit “cried out with a loud voice”! Even at my best I cannot handle the weight of this call. Has Jesus come to destroy all that makes me “me”? If I give all my life to God’s service, what will be left for me? I’m like an honest citizen, paying my taxes and my bills, but hoping to have enough left over to live on.
The shocking truth is that God in fact wants all of us. Not just a little bit of our spare time, a tithe of our income, or our good opinion. All of us.
God wants not a little bit, but everything.
Because, in the end, there are only two ways to live.
One way which takes us farther away, deep into the outer darkness, where we can be alone with our “unclean spirit” and not have to bother with anything, or anyone, else.
And the other way, which takes us towards God, and towards one another in mutual love and service.
Jesus commanded, and the unclean spirit came out of the man.
Jesus is the way to God. That’s why he can speak with such authority which would be laughable, or terrifying, from anyone else. He doesn’t just tell us about God, he is the very image of the unseeable God.
Jesus will speak to us, too, if we desire it. Jesus will command our overweening self-love, or oppressive self-hatred, or whatever way we experience our pre-occupation with self, and will transform us.
That’s the secret to the man being at the Synagogue. He wanted to be transformed. Part of that was coming along every week, being part of the community, learning everything that was there to be learned.
But the most important thing – the central thing – is that he met with Jesus.
He met with Jesus and was taken up into Jesus’ battle with all that leads to death in our lives, which would eventually lead to Jesus’ triumph in death and resurrection.
And that is what we are about, here and now. Meeting with Jesus. Allowing his word and presence to transform us. Sometimes eagerly. Sometimes reluctantly.
We need to bring our whole selves to God: not just the acceptable bits which feel appropriate to a worship service. There’s nowhere to hide.
But, more importantly, there is nothing to fear.
God wants us for ourselves, and, here’s the paradoxical miracle of it all, will give us back to ourselves. Healed. In tune with ourselves and with one another, and with God.
Not overnight. It’s a long journey, as you know better than I. But it’s a change of direction of travel, which the Greeks called metanoia, and which we know as “repentance.”
God loves each of us: individually, specifically, and by name.
God calls each of us: individually, specifically, and by name.
So to answer our original question about who Jesus is and what Jesus wants: Jesus is the very presence of God with us. He wants everything. All our good and bad attributes. And he will give us back our transformed selves.
In our encounter with Jesus; through prayer and worship and fellowship and service and in all that makes for a life of faith: God will give us back our true selves, freed from our particular unclean spirits.
 Luke 18:9-14
Picture: JESUS MAFA. The Possessed, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=48382 [retrieved January 27, 2021]. Original source: http://www.librairie-emmanuel.fr (contact page: https://www.librairie-emmanuel.fr/contact).