a sermon on kings and demons and strong men (oh my)

Third Sunday after Pentecost
Texts: 1 Samuel 8:4-20, 11:14-15 | Psalm 138 | 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1 | Mark 3:20-35


Holy Scandal: The Outrageous Stories of the People of God. Our worship series this summer focuses on the strange and unexpected ways that God is acting in the stories of the Bible and in the stories of our lives. In the books of 1 and 2 Samuel we’re following the stories of the rulers of Israel: their victories and failures, and God’s presence along the way. And in the gospel of Mark we’re following Jesus and the disciples on their movement journey of miraculous healing.

The texts this week are full of religious and political scandal. After generations of God’s leadership as the people’s highest authority, in today’s reading the people of Israel want a human king. Recent leadership has been corrupt, neighboring kingdoms are gaining power, and economic interests are at stake. God tells Samuel to warn the people about the sort of oppression they will experience under a king:

God gives and gives and gives – God brought you out of Egypt! But the king will take and take and take. (The word take shows up six times in this passage.) War and exploited labor, children separated from their families, taking from the many to give to the few, slavery. God is not about those things —

But the people don’t listen. The people demand the very thing that will oppress them, and we will see them live with the consequences as scandals play out in the monarchy in the coming weeks.

Assyrian battle scene of foot soldiers and charioteers. (Relief sculpture, British Museum, London)

By the time of Jesus’s life, centuries later, the Jewish people in Palestine were under Roman rule, a different kind of imperial power structure. Still, they were no strangers to the oppression that comes with human government. In first century Palestine, the peasant class made up the vast majority of society, yet they were subjugated to the interests of a tiny ruling class. These aristocrats, owners of vast estates, made up less than half of one percent of the population, yet they dominated the economy. Meanwhile, the entire area was under foreign rule by the Roman Empire. We can imagine that the sociopolitical tensions were no less complicated than the ones we’re experiencing now.

In the midst of all that, the gospel writer Mark gives us a very particular story about Jesus. “It is a narrative for and about the common people. The Gospel reflects the daily realities of disease, poverty, and disenfranchisement”experienced by the poor majority. As we move through these chapters of Mark this summer, we’ll hear stories of healing and exorcism, of crowds and controversy, parables and miracles. Throughout, it becomes clear that this is a story “from below.” This story makes the common people, like fishers and farmers, people with disabilities and people with disease, the protagonists of the gospel.2

Crucifixion by Pablo Picasso (1930)

Today on the scene in Mark, we find Jesus and the disciples together with a crowd in a place near Jesus’s home. This is near the beginning of Jesus’s ministry. He’s been traveling around the whole area healing and casting out demons, and apparently things are already getting too scandalous, because here Jesus faces criticism – both from his own family and from outside. Jesus family has heard that Jesus has “gone out of his mind” so they come to where he is and try to stop him. The scribes from Jerusalem say that Jesus is possessed by a demon, and that’s why he has been able to cast out demons from others.

This exchange might not be particularly meaningful to you on first hearing, especially if it is not common in your cultural context to talk about demon possession or miraculous spiritual healing. What is important to understand here is that in the gospel of Mark, all the things that people suffer from – whether they are ill, or cast out of community, or possessed by evil spirits – these are often deeply connected to the things that the whole community is suffering – economic inequity, gender violence, military occupation.

One way to understand demons in the gospel of Mark is to think of them as something close to what we now call internalized oppression – the way that the world’s oppression to us somehow becomes part of us, affecting our bodies and our spirits from within. Like how I want to be liberated from gender- and size- based oppression, but I still carry shame about the shape of my body. Or how we know that debt and low wages are systemic problems, but we still feel like it’s our fault when our finances are unstable. Or when we know that we don’t need to earn God’s love, but we still behave as though we aren’t good enough unless we are perfect. Internalized oppression. Demons.


The scribes say that Jesus is possessed by the “prince of demons” – how else could he cast out demons from others? Jesus makes it clear – I am not Satan – but elsewhere in Mark it is clear that Jesus knows those demons. He recognizes them and has conversations with them. They recognize him and know exactly who he is.

I wonder what sort of personal experience Jesus might have had with those demons. I wonder when Jesus might have been sick or ostracized like the people he healed, or when he too struggled against forces that seemed bent on destroying him, from outside or from within.

In our conversations about the campaign for a publicly funded mental health center, we have been noticing how it feels to recognize that many of us struggle with the same demons. Our lives are different, but many of us have experienced the same pain. The things that are making us sick are not because of some personal defect, but share common causes. We are lonely, and isolated. We are unsure about the future. We feel hopeless or numb or empty. We don’t have access to the care we need. We live in a world that is hostile to wellness and life.

And – good news! Jesus is no stranger to those demons. The critics say, “He must be the ruler of evil, if he’s telling the evil spirits what to do.” Jesus sort of responds, I’m not evil, because that wouldn’t even make sense – why would Satan cast Satan out?

And then, Jesus does something super scandalous. Jesus compares himself to a thief, a criminal. “No one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.” (Mk 3:27)

This is wild. No doubt Jesus’s hearers would be imagining who this strong man might be, and it likely would have been easy for them to imagine. The big boss who pays me next to nothing to be a day laborer on his estate. The soldier who comes through town and keeps everyone in line by force. The king, like all the kings before, who takes and takes and takes and takes and takes and takes and takes.

That is why I’m casting out demons, Jesus is saying. There is a big, strong, power in this world that is abusing all of us, and everyone is too weak, or too sick or afraid to make things right. What this Jesus movement is up to, is tying that big strong man up! This movement is breaking rules, it is breaking and entering the status quo, and redistributing abundant life for everyone.

Gustave Doré’s illustrations to Dante’s Inferno, Plate LXV: Canto XXXI: The titans and giants.

Jesus is tying up economic oppressors and bullies. Jesus is immobilizing all the hatred and discrimination that hurts us. God is defeating all the forces in the world that cause mental illness, and suicide, and abuse, and violence, because God is about to plunder the strong man right where he lives.

God is building a movement of the smallest and weakest, and that is the movement that will cast out the evil among us, create healing and hope, bind us together in solidarity, and make us family with each other, mothers, siblings, all of us – a chosen family of God.

1Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2008).

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