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Michael Simone, S.J.September 06, 2023
Photo from Unsplash.

A Reflection for Wednesday of the Twenty-second Week in Ordinary TIme

Readings can be found here.

In Jesus’ day, people believed in the presence of spirits. These beings, although intangible, were just as present and alive and active as any visible being. Some of these spirits were demonic, in that they were human-like in their powers of intellect and speech. Others were more like dangerous animals that lacked sense and survived on instinct. Usually spiritual beings kept to themselves, but sometimes they interacted with humans. Occasionally, many believed, this could be the result of divine punishment, as in the story of King Saul (1 Sm 16:14-23). More often, it was because a person passed unwittingly near a place where spirits congregated— tombs, places of illness, ruins, uninhabited land. Those who passed too close to one of these “unclean” places could find that they had picked up some kind of spirit, which, like a parasite, would disrupt their life or even drain it completely.

Just as some people had unusual skills with animals like horses and dogs, others had authority over spirits. For example, when King Saul was troubled by his evil spirit, “David would take the harp and play, and Saul would be relieved and feel better, for the evil spirit would leave him” (1 Sm 16:23). Healing practitioners in Jesus’ day relied on authority over spirits for at least some of their practice. This authority could be exercised through words, gestures, medicines, or even surgical interventions. But these practitioners knew their authority was limited. Ancient Egyptian texts, for example, provide lists of symptoms for which no known remedy was available. By contrast, Jesus had irresistible power over evil spirits, both the animal-like ones that caused illnesses and fevers and the sentient ones that possessed people with madness. This authority was one of the important signs that he was the “one like a son of man” foretold in prophecy (Dn 7:14).

Although our understanding of illness has changed, there is still a role for disciples who have authority over unclean spirits, who can dismiss the things that attach themselves to us. So many of us cling to lies that disrupt and even destroy our lives.

This is the context of today’s Gospel passage. Matthew, Mark and Luke all include this same series of episodes—the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law, the gathering of all the sick in the entire town and Jesus’ nighttime departure—near the beginning of their Gospels. They introduce Jesus to their readers by emphasizing his authority over unclean spirits. People would have understood that his healing ministry was not just an act of mercy, but rather a fulfillment of prophecy, an essential proof that God’s chosen one had arrived and that salvation was on the way.

Authority over illness and other spirits was something Jesus shared with his disciples and a ministry that they continued (e.g., Lk 9:1, Acts 8:7). Although our understanding of illness has changed, there is still a role for disciples who have authority over unclean spirits, who can dismiss the things that attach themselves to us. So many of us cling to lies that disrupt and even destroy our lives. Any of these “spirits” can be dismissed by someone who speaks and lives the Gospel with authenticity. Forgiving and teaching forgiveness, acts of generosity and mercy, displays of faith even in suffering, and even simply reminding people that they are loved all have the power to dislodge unclean things from the minds and hearts. Every time we do this, we remind the world that Christ is still alive and still at work, saving any who call out for his mercy.

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