What possessed you?

Feb. 01, 2015

Dt. 18.15-20; 1 Cor. 8.1-13; Mk. 1.21-28

How many times have you asked somebody the question, "What in the world possessed you to...?" (And you could fill-in-the-blank with whatever craziness you want!) Or "What got into you, that you...?"! At times, even our own behaviors, let alone the behavior of other people can be a source of complete consternation. St Paul said it best in his letter to the Romans, "I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate...For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells in me."

It was about five years ago this week that the financial dealings of Bernie Madoff and his family became known to the wider world. Bernie Madoff--is, of course, the guy who made off with more than 50 billion dollars of other peoples' money in the biggest Ponzi scheme of all time. The NY Times then published an article that still resonates today: "What got into Bernie Madoff to so successfully carry on a double life for so many years? And to bilk so many people out of their money?" J. Reid Meloy, a forensic psychologist who has studied psychopathic criminal behavior, compared Madoff to the well-known serial killer Ted Bundy. Madoff didn't shed blood in the literal sense, but he sure did murder a great many people's hopes and dreams. Both men used their intelligence and affable style to disarm potential victims into misplacing their trust, and both, when confronted with the monstrous nature of their offenses showed no discernable remorse. There was a TV on camera episode when, just after the crimes surfaced and the news media swarmed around Madoff outside his exclusive NYC high-rise, that he pushed reporters out of his way, showing great distain...but no remorse. And his only public apology he issued was a letter left in the lobby of his building in which he addressed to the other residents saying that he was sorry for the intrusion into their lives by these horrible news people.

Did something "not so good" get into these men, Bundy and Madoff--or did they choose to behave as badly as they did? Like many psychopaths, they both had a profound sense of entitlement and the belief that they could do these awful things because they were special, a cut above the rest. They also had a sense of invulnerability...and that invariably is the source of their downfall.

When you think about it, we've all gotten it into our heads from time to time that we're not as bad as other people and, in fact, probably a little better than most. Studies of business managers show that 9 out of 10 think they are a little better as managers than the others and 9 out of 10 driver's rate themselves as safer drivers than everybody else on the road. My goodness, if we could only get that bumbling 10% off the roads! Then only us safe drivers would be on the roads!

The insightful Christian writer, C.S. Lewis wrote, "If anyone thinks that Christians regard (sex) as the supreme vice, (they're) wrong. The sins of the flesh are (costly...but) the worst (are)...putting other people in the wrong, (when we're) bossing and patronizing and spoiling sport, and backbiting, (these are the) pleasures of power, (and) of hatred. For there are two things inside me competing...they are the animal self, and the diabolical self; and the diabolical self is (by far) the worst of the two. That is why a cold, self-righteous (hypocrite)...may be far nearer to hell than a prostitute. But, of course, it'd better to be neither." Anybody who can say, "Revenge is a dish best served cold" knows the meaning of the demonic. Jesus recognized this very well.

This brings us to the curious case of the demoniac in Mark's gospel today. In Mark, there are four exorcisms and they are paralleled in the other NT gospels. But the NT is the only one of all the preserved ancient documents in which there is a conversation recorded with an unclean spirit. This foul spirit knows Jesus' true identify--which it blurts out. Jesus proclaims in no uncertain terms and with authority, "... " which means, "Shut up!" and "Get out!" He's a guy you don't want to mess with! The onlookers know they had witnessed something pretty remarkable. Only God can rebuke the evil that can creep into a life. When you think about and study what evil does in our world, you can see that evil is a void...it sucks everything into itself in a vain attempt to feed and sustain itself. But it's like the mathematical concept of zero. When you multiply even the largest number in the universe times zero, you still have only a zero. God, on the other hand, is a positive value. God is substantial. God alone can deal with and replace the void of evil. That, I think, is the point of all the narratives about exorcisms and demons in the NT.

Any number of things can get into you. Sin greases the way in. It causes us to miss the mark because we lose sight of the good in our pursuit of sinful illusions...it's erroneous thinking and behaving. Unfortunately, people in positions of greatest power and trust are the very people we count on to be able to make good decisions to keep evil at bay. But whether your job is a priest or a governor or just being a husband and a father...sin can creep into and come to own you and the only way to get it out is to replace it with something positive...and that presence is the fullness and richness of God.

That's the message of St Paul in 1st Corinthians today. You probably missed it in all the talk about eating meat from pagan sacrifices. But the point he makes is profound ...don't lead others into sin by your behavior. The neglect, the insensitivity, the callousness, and the disregard for others...all these can bring others into the bondage of sin and evil. But Christ can and does liberate. Christ helps us discover our real self that can get lost even from ourselves under the tarnish and distortion of evil. The truth is, the way to beat down Satan is to lead each other to love...to show love, to be love, to care about each other and to show kindness, goodness to each other and share each other's concerns...I know that sounds complicated, but put simply, evil can be cast out by replacing it with love and goodness.

In the Peanuts comic strip, Lucy offers psychiatry for 5 cents. Once Charlie Brown came to her and said, "Tell me a great truth." Lucy smiled and said, "When it's dark and you get a drink, always rinse out the glass, because there might be a bug in it." She held out her hand and Charlie gave her the 5 cents and he said, "Great truths are even more simple than I thought." As St Paul said, "love builds up." If only we could get that into us, then evil wouldn't find room in our hearts and minds. Amen.

The Reverend W A Ray
St Thomas Church Diamondhead, MS