The ancient world, including the world of the Bible and the world in which Jesus lived, was filled with “spirits.” The modern secular world view is strongly empirical. Only entities that can be touched, seen (at least with a microscope), or measured are considered to be “real.” But our ancestors thought otherwise. Surrounding the human world and the earth in which humans lived was an active spirit world. Intelligent spirits moved the stars and the planets along their course and the patterns they made could determine human destiny. Some spirits—angels, the souls of deceased loved ones—were benign. But other spirits were evil, toxic for human life and lurked behind many illnesses and misfortunes. The nether world below was infested with the power of death. God, of course, was the source of the Spirit of life and goodness; Satan, the personification of evil, sought to lead human life astray and to ultimately destroy it.
That ancient world view is in play in our Scripture readings for today. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul contrasts a “spirit of the world” with the “Spirit who is from God.” Through the Spirit given to us by God we are able to perceive “spiritual realities” and to gain true wisdom. Throughout his letters Paul speaks of the Spirit of God given to us through baptism, a Spirit that enables us to truly know God’s love, teaches us how to pray, and will ultimately lead us to God.
We see this contrast of “spirits” in Luke’s account of Jesus’ healing a man in the synagogue of Capernaum, one of the very first actions of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus encounters a man “with the spirit of an unclean demon.” The evil spirit knows what it is up against: “What have to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!” The evil spirits are part of that mysterious spirit-world and, more readily than humans, recognize the identity of Jesus.
Jesus silences the evil spirit and demands he relinquish his grip on this tormented human being, a child of God. The gospel notes, “Then the demon threw the man down in front of them and came out of him without doing him any harm.” Understandably the synagogue congregation is amazed and said to one another, “What is there about his word? For with authority and power he commands the unclean spirits, and they come out.”
Although today we might have a different way of diagnosing the terrible plight of the man in this account, the fundamental lesson it teaches is timeless: Jesus is suffused with God’s power—a power that creates and protects human life. Although the ancient peoples feared the power of overwhelming evil, those who trusted in Jesus knew that the demonic powers and the power of God were not an equal playing field. God’s love revealed in Jesus is far more powerful than any evil that threatens humans. We, too, know the power of menacing evil: the threat of the pandemic; the violence on our city streets; the racism and economic exploitation that robs people of their dignity and even their lives.
Ultimately, we, too, like our ancestors in the faith, depend on God’s unconditional love for us. As Pope Francis has so beautifully said, “Jesus is the human face of the Father’s mercy.” That face is on display in this gospel account and is with us as a source of hope and a motivation for action in the midst of our struggles with evil.
Fr. Donald Senior, C.P. is President Emeritus and Professor of New Testament at Catholic Theological Union. He lives at the Passionist residence in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago.