Today’s Gospel passage from Mark portrays Jesus’ very first act of ministry. Until now, Jesus has retreated to the wilderness to pray and wrestle with the Devil, and he has called his core disciples. Using a modern business analogy, we might say Jesus has gone on a visioning retreat to set his priorities and create his strategic plan, and he has assembled his team. But until today Jesus hasn’t launched. He hasn’t done anything. Again, by analogy, if we consider Steve Jobs and the annual Apple shareholders meeting, we know that first actions intend to set tone, name priorities, and declare to the world what is central to mission. They serve as the “big reveal.” On center stage, when he has people’s attention, Steve Jobs (or, now, Tim Cook) announces the iPod, or iPhone, or iPad, setting the consumer world on fire. What does Jesus do?
We’re told that Jesus enters the synagogue at Capernaum—locally, this is like the Toyota Center: the center of attention, exactly where you’d want to go in order to make a splash. Jesus teaches, but in Mark’s Gospel we’re not told what he says. Mark does, however, describe Jesus’ first public act. A man filled with, we are told, an “unclean spirit” approaches Jesus and speaks in what can only be described as a possessed voice, a voice not truly the man’s own. He confronts Jesus, and then Jesus performs his very first act of ministry. It is his public debut. Jesus casts out the unclean spirit. Jesus frees the man from the voice that speaks for him, from the foreign thing—the idol—that has come to control his life.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned in a lifetime of studying the Gospels, it’s that Jesus did nothing by happenstance. If you see the very good movie Selma and watch the way that Martin Luther King, Jr. calculates every minute action, you’ll get a glimpse of the way Jesus also strategized and carried out his ministry, not to manipulate but so that the maximum good would be done with the greatest effect, the maximum grace would be shared.
So, in this first act of ministry, on center stage as it were, Jesus casts out an unclean spirit that had taken hold of the core of this man’s life. This is the big act; this sets the tone for everything else that is to come; this is the “big reveal.” But why this?
Let’s switch gears for a moment to this strange little epistle passage from First Corinthians. In Corinth, the Christians have a problem. The vast majority of the meat for sale in the market stalls—or even on the menu of what were the equivalent of ancient restaurants—comes from animals that were slaughtered as sacrifices to idols, to pagan gods. Some mature Christians who are full of knowledge and wisdom eat this meat without pause, realizing that the idols to which it was sacrificed aren’t real. Others, though—Christians young in the faith and not so wise or mature—get confused by this practice. The more they eat the meat, the more they become convinced that perhaps the idols to which it was dedicated are real, and they begin to feel as if they are being both unfaithful to God and affected by these idols in some way. And so, Paul says it’s best to avoid the meat altogether, so as not to confuse the young in faith.
Paul is actually being tricky here, because as anyone knows who has read First Corinthians, in truth none of the Christians in Corinth are wise or mature! They fight and backbite; they get drunk on Communion wine. I think Paul is using sly rhetoric. (He’s great at that.) See, Paul ingratiates some of the Corinthians by calling them wise in order to instruct all of them, and he’s talking about more than just the literal meat bought in the marketplace. He’s using the meat as a symbol of all the idols in the Corinthians’ lives and he’s saying something like this:
“You all ingest the stuff of the false idols around you until those idols become real in your lives. You may know intellectually that they are false, but what you eat—what you say, what you do—manifests itself in your bodies and in your relationships. These idols assault your minds and your spirits, and they eventually take hold of your core. They possess you, in a sense. They become real, and they take control of your life.”
The Corinthians take the food dedicated to idols, to other gods, into their bodies—they ingest it into the core of themselves—and that act is symbolic of something ominous and bigger, which affects us in the twenty-first century as much as it did the Corinthians in the first.
Paul Tillich said that our faith is based in whatever claims our ultimate concern. Said slightly differently—and this is important—our god is that in which we place our ultimate concern. That’s god with a lowercase “g”. We know, intellectually, that there is no god but God: The creator of heaven and earth, the giver of life and love. But what we intellectually know and what we invite into the core of our being are two different things. We, too, metaphorically speaking, ingest the food of idols. Don’t misunderstand; these idols are not little statues or graven images.
There is the idol of anger, found everywhere in our world defined by people’s fear and disappointment that life has not turned out as we’d hoped. Feeding on anger, we too often project our disappointment and the frustration of our days on those with whom we share our lives. Think of the child who repeatedly hears harsh and degrading words, either directed at her or simply spoken in anger within her hearing. A brief “I love you” spoken at bedtime cannot outweigh the long effects of the food of idols. When the child is exposed so often to words from anger’s altar, she begins to think of herself as degraded and unworthy. The same effect is true of the anger we bear against our spouses, our partners, our siblings, and our friends.
There is the idol of pride, the false notion that somehow we have more merit than those around us. Pride’s food is the building up of oneself by tearing another down. With gossip, with exclusivism, with words designed to sting under the guise of humor or even help, pride is a cruel idol. When given reality within us, it can grow until one’s feelings of superiority over others are so engrained that everyone else becomes an object of derision and disdain.
Perhaps the most insidious idol is materialism, the untruth that worth and value are to be found in material things. In our world, many consume and consume insatiably and unsustainably, sometimes putting accumulation before the basic needs of our brothers and sisters.
There are countless other idols. You know yours, and I surely know mine. They provide endless food. They settle into the core of us. They draw our attention. They begin to consume us, rather than we them. Sometimes, they become our ultimate concern. And at that point they have possessed us like an unclean spirit. They have become, in all the ways that tangibly matter in our world, our gods in place of God. When that happens, selfishness triumphs over empathy. Fear bests courage. Anger smothers love. Our attention, our energy, our finances, our passion are given to the idol, whatever it is. And the things of God—family, the Body of Christ, the sharing of grace in the world—are neglected, crowded out, and forgotten.
This is rarely some momentous, seismic thing. Rather, it happens gradually, insidiously so, so that we are scarcely aware it is happening. That is, until we realize one day that we, like the man in Mark’s Gospel, no longer seem to speak with our own voice. We can’t even recognize the sound of ourselves. We’ve become someone we didn’t intend and never wanted to be, someone whose ultimate concern is some idol we know, intellectually, to be pretend and of no real value.
And that is why Jesus does what he does to launch his ministry. That’s the purpose of his big reveal. In Mark’s telling, Jesus declares in action that he has come, more than for any other reason, to free us from our idols, to knock from the center of our attention, from the realm of our ultimate concern, those things that take control of us, that claim us, that steal our voices and turn us into someone we are not.
Jesus the Christ, who has earlier said to the disciples, “Follow me,” now says to our clamoring idols, “Be silent, and be gone.” Those idols won’t leave easily. They’ll make excuses, and cry out as if they are the victims, and convulse us as they try to keep hold of our core. But Jesus speaks with the authority of God, and before the voice of God all idols fall silent, like the White Queen before the roar of Aslan in Narnia.
And then, empathy triumphs over selfishness. Courage bests fear. Love envelopes anger. That is grace. That is the Gospel. That is the power that can return us to ourselves, so that idols are starved of their food and depart from us, and our hearts are filled with love as our ultimate concern and our God.