We know a lot about the human body. Scientific and medical progress over the last few decades has given us a better understanding of the way the body works. Consequently, many illnesses which were incurable in the past can now be treated successfully and healed without too much fuss. Sometimes we tend to believe that modern medicine can virtually deal with whatever is thrown at us. Yet there’s one organ in the human body that remains a great mystery: the brain. Yes, we know more about it than we used to; we understand its physical and physiological aspects better; but its cognitive powers – the way we learn and remember things, the way we keep our lifelong memories, and so on – to a great extent these remain uncharted. Generally speaking, we are relatively good at coping with physical illnesses that affect ourselves or those dear to us; but we feel really out of our depth when dealing with people suffering from mental problems or mental illnesses. Not so long ago, people affected by various mental problems would meet with strange looks at best, denigration or even venom and violence at worst. Not so long ago such people were labelled in humiliating, derogatory terms. In part the abuse was due to people’s fear and ignorance of psychological and psychiatric conditions.
In today’s gospel we heard about a confrontation between Jesus and an ‘unclean spirit’ who had possessed a man. Isn’t it strange that a man in the grip of a power openly hostile to the divine was in a synagogue, a place which by definition is consecrated to God? What was he doing there? Why was he there at all? Surely, we would have expected a possessed person to avoid such a place. It must be said that in ancient times many forms of mental problem or disability were attributed to the influence of supernatural power, sometimes to divine inspiration, sometimes to demonic. Jesus himself was accused by his opponents many times of being possessed by the devil. So, perhaps the man shouting at Jesus in the synagogue wasn’t possessed but suffering from a particular mental condition. When we look a bit closer and more carefully at today’s gospel, there are a few interesting elements that can shed some light on the situation.
In the first paragraph St Mark reports that Jesus’ teaching in the synagogue ‘made a deep impression’ on his audience, because ‘unlike the scribes, he taught them with authority.’ This description indicates clearly that Jesus wasn’t like their regular preachers. Based on the gospels we can safely assume that the content of his teaching and the way he conveyed it must have been drastically different from what his audience had been used to. Then, in the second paragraph, we have that man shouting: ‘What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?’ When you put aside the label with which he was tagged – possessed by an unclean spirit – his cry could simply have been a very strong and vocal protest against Jesus’ teaching. He wouldn’t be the only person in the gospels to take such a stance. In fact, the Jewish authorities tried to silence Jesus, because they perceived him to be a grave threat to the established political and religious order, and to centuries-old traditions. We can speculate that the man who was shouting was labelled with such a derogatory term not because he was possessed, but because it was, and sadly still is, a very effective verbal weapon. In anger we call people ‘idiots’, ‘morons’, ‘stupid’ and many other names relating to their alleged mental limitations. Sometimes we spread such unfair and damaging judgment with others, and then your opponent’s reputation can really be blemished.
In today’s gospel there’s a phrase that was used twice with reference to Jesus: ‘He taught them with authority.’ It’s an interesting sentence. Usually we think about authorities as those who impose their will upon their subjects, quite often with force if they choose to do so. But throughout the gospels such a perception doesn’t seem to apply to Jesus. He always appeals to people’s hearts and minds; he always calls people to make their own decisions and choices, even if those are objectively wrong. Jesus never imposed anything forcibly. His authority stems from the power of argument, not the argument of power. He seeks to win people round with his arguments and so to follow him willingly because of their conviction.
I think there are two important lessons that we can take for ourselves from today’s gospel. In no particular order: the first lesson is that we ought deliberately to avoid labelling people, particularly with derogatory terms of alleged mental illness. The label is rarely applicable to the person, and incidentally it’s harmful to those who do genuinely suffer from such conditions. Such sufferers need our empathy and support, not denigration or belittlement, even if it’s in passing. The second lesson is two-pronged, and it applies to disagreements, which arise naturally in any community. Find the best possible arguments to convince someone of your opinions or views and be ready to present them fearlessly, but respectfully. But then let your opponent make up their own mind and be ready to accept that they might not be convinced. In that case, perhaps you need to present better arguments. Or to admit that you are wrong. And that’s the most difficult thing to do, isn’t it?