Each of the synoptic Gospels, the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, includes the story of Jesus sending his apostles out on mission. Mark’s version of this story is striking because it does not tell them to go on a preaching mission. Mark simply says that Jesus sent the Twelve out with authority over unclean spirits.
The Gospels of Matthew and Luke focus on proclaiming the nearness of the Kingdom of God. However, this element is missimg in Mark’s Gospel. So one is led to believe that the notion of being sent out with authority over unclean spirits might just be the thing on which Mark wants us to focus. However, for people of the Western world to focus on this “unclean spirits” issue might be difficult unless we understand what these people believed about such spirits, beliefs that we might not necessarily hold ourselves.
People in the ancient Mediterranean world not only held a strong belief in the existence of spirits, both good and evil, but also ranked them according to power in five categories. At the top of the list was “our” God; namely, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God was the most powerful spirit; this notion is not hard for us to accept. “Other” gods or sons of god or angels and archangels come next in their ranking. Most of us probably believe in angels, but I am sure you realize that some people do not. In third place the peoples of the Mediterranean would list less powerful, nonhuman persons or unclean spirits and demons. Now we are getting into areas where even fewer people would agree. Human being were in fourth place. The Mediterranean world believed that spirits and demons were stronger than human beings. In last place we find the creatures or animals of our planet.
So while the fact that Jesus gives the Apostles authority over unclean spirits may not impress us all that much, it is important that we realize that it would have impressed the people of that time and place very much. Jesus was essentially raising their ranking and telling them that they were now stronger than the unclean spirits which they believed ruled the natural world. To reinforce this idea, the Gospels tell us that Jesus has already demonstrated this power in their midst. They have seen and heard Jesus confronting such demons and casting them out of afflicted people. Now Jesus was telling them that they were to do the same thing. Jesus, whom they regarded as their Master, was expressing great confidence in them. If you wonder how they might have felt when Jesus chose them for this task, think back to your childhood when somebody chose you to be on the team. Conversely, think of what it felt like not to be chosen.
Being chosen always feels good. St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians begins with a lovely poem that tells us that we, too, have been chosen. We have been chosen since before the world began as God’s adopted children. Adoption is a favorite topic of St. Paul’s, but it is also a word that you won’t find used by the other New Testament writers. Adoption was a foreign concept in the Jewish world. If children were left parentless, they already had a place in the homes of their father’s brother. Jewish people lived in such extended family situations. However, St. Paul was both Jewish and a citizen of Rome. Adoption was a common experience in the Roman world. You might remember how Judah Ben Hur was adopted by a Roman commander in that famous novel and movie. Of course, with adoption comes the promise of an inheritance. St. Paul reminds us that we have all received the first installment on that inheritance; namely, the Holy Spirit. We will receive the rest of our inheritance when we come into God’s presence at the end of this life and the beginning of the next.
Like Amos the Prophet, about whom we heard in the first reading, like St. Paul the great evangelizer, and like the Apostles, we have all been chosen. God’s chooses us not because we love God, but because God loves us. So even if no one ever chose you to be part of the playground teams of your youth, we can all be assured that we are chosen by our loving God.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator