We can only imagine what the man of Capernaum was thinking when Jesus laid eyes on him. Here’s a guy who, for most of his life, had something inside him that was eating away at his body, at his mind, at his spirit. An unclean spirit, as the story tells us.
How he got this unclean spirit, we don’t know. But we know this: His friends stopped calling. When they saw him coming down the street, they crossed to the other sidewalk. His name sparked mock or ridicule or cold pity. He can’t take care of himself anymore. His clothes are shredded and stained. His beard is tangled and filled with jumping lice. He stinks of the gutter.
He has a parasite, a disease in his being—chipping away at him. And gradually, people stop seeing him. He fades into the street corner or the alley. And the only time he comes out is when the unclean spirit takes control, when he runs screaming into the forum or the market or the street corner. And his former friends look away in embarrassment. They hide their eyes as their blood pressure rises. They trade sheepish glances. They don’t know how to fix him. They don’t have the prescription. “If only he’d just go away. If only he’d just leave us alone. If only he’d just go off somewhere and die.”
He has a parasite in his being—something eating away at this body, and mind and spirit. And there is nothing they can do.
I wonder, where can unclean spirits be found today? Are they spreading here? In this town? What are the problems that we just don’t want to see?
A couple weeks ago, I was at the board meeting for our local food bank, the CRO. Someone mentioned off-handedly that there are more than 5,000 people in Mount Holly who live below the poverty line. 5,000 people who struggle to put food on their table, sometimes wondering if there will be any food at all.
That number really shocked me. Because for all my work here at the church, I often don’t see them. Yes, some come to our church office asking for assistance, but that is just a trickle compared to the flood of 5,000. We are doing a lot at this church for the issue, there’s a lot we can be proud of…but still that number, 5,000 out of a population of 13,000, really blows my mind.
Where are they? Who are they? Could it be that they’re surrounding me and I’m just choosing not to see it?
When so many in this town are crying out in pain, its a little too tempting just to look away in embarrassment. There is a disease here, and we need a doctor.
The man at Capernaum needed a doctor, too. And lucky for him, on the day he ripped into the synagogue, there was a physician in the crowd. While the others hid their faces, Jesus looked the man in the eye. Jesus saw him, Jesus diagnosed him, Jesus knew exactly what to do. The unclean spirit knew his time had come.
“What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?” “What’s the treatment Jesus? Is it going to hurt?”
Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit. He pulled it out of the man. Jesus did what no one else could do. And Jesus did not destroy the body of the man, but instead restored him. He allowed the man to walk down the sidewalk without shame. He allowed the man to be seen by his friends once more, not as a problem but as a person.
“What’s the treatment Jesus? Is it going to hurt?”
Sometimes medical treatment does hurt. Ask anyone who has battled cancer and they will tell you. Chemotherapy poisons the body. Radiation decays the body. It leaves people weak and disoriented. For some, the treatment seems worse than the condition.
Maybe that’s why we put off going to see the doctor. We ignore the aches and pains because we worry about the treatment. We worry about the outcome. But most of all, we dread that discussion in the doctor’s office . . . the hard diagnosis.
But that’s the essential part of the cure. The man at Capernaum could not have been made well until Jesus saw him. We will not be saved until we name the problem. Until we point it out to others. Until we render it impossible to ignore. Until we diagnose it.
Is it going to hurt? Yes, its going to hurt. People don’t want to hear it.
So it falls to us—the baptized disciples, the bearers of the gospel—it falls to us to be the physicians with the difficult news. It falls to us to be the messengers. No prophet is welcome among his people. And people will blanche at our bold diagnosis. Jesus cast out unclean spirits and was hung on a cross for it. Can we expect anything less?
As a congregation, if we are to grow in our love for God and our neighbor, we need to muster the courage to see the problems around us. Not just to provide resources to meet an immediate need, but also to ask the deeper questions. Why is this happening—why do so many people in our town hunger, why do they suffer? What can change? What can we do to challenge it?
Let me give you a little assignment this week: When you’re out doing your grocery shopping, pay attention to the people around you. Chances are there’s one of those 5,000 in the store that day. And it’s easy to look away in embarrassment, or judge them, or think they’re lazy or mooching or something else. But Jesus calls us to imagine ourselves in their shoes. To think about who they might be and what they might need on this day.
And once we’re able to do that—once we’re able to separate the person from the unclean spirit—then we’re able to act in love.
The thing about it is this: Jesus did not come to destroy. He comes to restore. He is our physician. We don’t have to fear the diagnosis. We don’t have to be afraid to stand up to the powers of this world and say “Be silent. Come out of here.”
Jesus gives us hope. Unlike the people of Capernaum, we know the cure. We have the prescription. We know what to do. We have a vision of a new future—the kingdom of God—where everyone’s table is full and we want for nothing.
This vision leads us to do amazing things. To give mountains of food and resources for those who need it. And it’s that vision that inspires us to seek ways to do more. To see others with total compassion and love.
We ground our hope in the Holy One of God, who calls us today to be prophets to a stricken world. To give the diagnosis. To act. To call out the unclean spirit wherever they may be.