By Steve Schlossberg
Along with everything else Jesus was, he was an exorcist. Everywhere he goes in the gospel, along with everything else he does, he casts demons out of people. And for many of us, that’s the weird thing he does. That’s the thing he does in the Gospel that makes most of us most uncomfortable. But to be fair, it seemed to make everyone uncomfortable then.
In the story this morning, Jesus’ family is uncomfortable with all those exorcisms. The religious authorities are uncomfortable with all those exorcisms. Presumably, the only people in the story who are comfortable with the exorcisms are the demon-possessed people who are asking Jesus to perform them — presumably. But who knows? We’re not told how it was for the people in this morning’s Gospel, but in some Gospel stories about exorcism, having your demons cast out is represented as an extremely distressing experience.
So let’s do ourselves a favor and think about something else. Let’s think instead about the story of the rich young man who approaches Jesus one day and says, “Teacher, what must I do to be saved?” And Jesus looks at him, the story says, and he loves him, and then he tells him, “There’s just one thing you lack: Sell your possessions, give the money to the poor, and follow me.”
Now I don’t know if that’s a story that’s meant to make anyone feel comfortable, but it’s not weird. There’s no demon and no exorcism. There’s just a man who wants to be at peace with God, and probably wants to be at peace with himself. If there’s a weird part, it’s that Jesus tells the man there’s one thing he lacks, and then he tells him to do three things. “Sell your possessions, give the money to the poor, and follow me. You lack one thing, so go do three things.”
What’s even stranger is that the first two things involve getting rid of things. “You lack one thing,” Jesus says, “so you need to get rid of two things.” What does the man need to get rid of? His possessions and his money. Once he gets rid of the two things, he will have the thing he lacks. What’s the thing he lacks? The third thing: Following Jesus.
If he wants to be at peace with God, he needs to follow Jesus. So why does he need to get rid of the other two things? Because the other two things are getting between him and the third thing.
When Jesus looks at the rich young man and loves him, Jesus is looking into the man and seeing what is inside the man, and seeing what is getting between him and God. It’s his possessions. Jesus perceives that as long as the man retains possession of all his possessions, he will never be free to follow him. His possessions are holding him back. His possessions control him. His possessions possess him.
That’s not really a story about exorcism, but it’s sort of a story about exorcism. Exorcism is getting rid of the thing that’s getting between you and God. Now in an actual exorcism story, the thing that’s getting between someone and God is a demon, and there’s the weird thing. But what is the weird thing, really?
In the gospel, a demon is a spiritual force that possesses someone, overpowers a person, takes a person over and controls him. It makes him do things he doesn’t want to do, and keeps him from doing the things he wants to do. What does this young man want to do? He wants to be saved; he wants to follow Jesus. He wants the third thing. What is holding him back? The first thing. Is it weird to say that this man’s attachment to his possessions is his demon?
In this morning’s gospel, Jesus says it’s like there’s a house, and inside the house is a strong man, and then a robber breaks into the house, he overpowers the strong man, ties him up, and then he plunders the house and steals all the strong man’s possessions.
Now if the rich young man had been around to hear Jesus say that, he probably would’ve said that he’s the strong man and Jesus is the robber, who’s trying to break into his house and take away all his possessions. If that’s what the rich man was thinking, he was almost right.
When Jesus tells the parable, he’s describing himself as the robber, who wants to break into the house and plunder it. But the rich man isn’t the strong man Jesus wants to tie up and rob. The rich man is one of the possessions Jesus wants to steal. The strong man Jesus wants to tie up and plunder is the demon that has possessed the rich man. Jesus is like a repo man. He wants to repossess the person and take him away from whomever or whatever is unlawfully possessing him.
Jesus doesn’t want the young man’s possessions. He wants the young man, liberated from his possessions.
We all know that our possessions can come to possess us. We all know that money has a weird power over us. It takes people over and controls them, and it can get between us and God and between us and the people around us. And it doesn’t just do that to rich people. You don’t have to be rich to be possessed by thoughts of money. And you don’t have to be poor to be possessed by fears about not having enough of it.
But there are weirder things than money that possess people. Fear is a spiritual force that gets inside us, gets between us and God, between us and other people, and it takes us over and controls us. It makes us do things we don’t want to do, and keeps us from doing the things we want to do.
Anger does the same thing. Shame does the same thing. Pride does the same thing. These are spiritual forces, and along with everything else they do to us, they plunder us. They take things away from us, or they keep us from getting the things we lack — like peace. Peace of mind. Peace of heart. Peace with God, peace with ourselves, peace with the people around us.
That’s in the story too. When Jesus tells the rich man to give his money to the poor, he’s trying to put the man back into relationship with his neighbors in need. Once the young man does the second thing, he’s already well on his way to doing the third thing. But he’s never going to be free to do either of those things until he does the first thing.
And he never does the first thing.
That’s really not a story about exorcism, because there’s no exorcism. The thing that’s getting between the man and being at peace is never gotten rid of. At the end of the story, the man decides he cannot bear to get rid of the thing.
He would rather keep the thing he has than have the thing he lacks. Why? Well because the thing he has makes him comfortable. The idea of getting rid of the thing makes him uncomfortable.
Presumably, what makes some of the exorcisms in the gospel so difficult and distressing for the people who are experiencing them is that the demons don’t want to let go of the person they’ve possessed. But I wonder if in some cases it’s that the person is having trouble letting go of their demons.
When it comes to some things, like our attachment to money, we’re in the position of the rich young man. We have a decision to make. We have to decide what we really want, what is getting between us and what we really want, and whether we’re willing to get rid of the thing we have so that we can have the thing we lack.
But there are some things inside us we can’t just get rid of. There are things inside us we never chose; there are other things inside we did have some hand in choosing, but they’ve been inside us so long they’ve become a part of us. Anger, envy, shame, pride, fear. When it comes to these things, I’m not a strong man. These things are stronger than me.
It’s at that point that the weird thing in the gospel becomes the most important thing to me. Exorcism isn’t just getting rid of something. What makes an exorcism an exorcism is that the possessed person doesn’t get rid of the thing. Jesus gets rid of the thing for them. What exorcism is in the gospel is Jesus doing something for someone they can’t do for themselves.
That’s not the weird thing he does in the gospel. It’s practically the only thing he does in the gospel.
You know the old saying, God helps people who help themselves. That’s not in the Bible. That’s in Poor Richard’s Almanack. That’s Benjamin Franklin. There’s obviously some truth in the old saying, and we all know the truth in it. The rich young man has a decision to make, and he is free to make that decision, and that’s a freedom Jesus respects. He doesn’t make our choices for us. He doesn’t stop the rich man from making a bad decision.
You know the old saying, Some people can’t be helped. That is not a true saying. What is true is that some people won’t be helped. Some people decide they’d rather not be helped. But what drives that decision? It could be pride. It could be shame. But I think for most of us fear is the strong man who has us all tied up in knots. What overcomes fear? St John says, Perfect love casts out fear.
Perfect love is an exorcist.
The deepest truth of the gospel is not that God helps those who helps themselves. The deepest truth of the gospel is that God helps those who can’t help themselves. That’s who Jesus came to save. People like me, who can’t save ourselves. Having Jesus break into our house isn’t necessarily a comfortable thing, but there are worse things than being uncomfortable. The worst thing we could do, and the weirdest thing we could do, is to learn to be comfortable with being all tied up in knots.
The Rev. Steve Schlossberg is rector of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia.