July 16th 2006In today's Gospel Jesus sends out his twelve apostles in pairs. To do what? We would most likely respond 'to preach the Gospel', but when we read the text we learn something which is both more practical and more basic.
They go out with authority over unclean spirits. They go out to preach forgiveness. Time and time again as we read and listen to Mark's Gospel this year, we hear about this conflict with demons, unclean spirits, the devil. Time and time again we hear that Jesus' fundamental message is a call to repentance. 'Repent and believe the good news', these are the words with which Jesus begins his teaching. Yet for us, the talk of repentance is uncomfortable, and the language of demons and spirits is, well, the stuff of films and eccentrics, not the matter of down to earth, day to day Christian life.
How can we understand this? Well, first, do not be too ready to dismiss demons and unclean spirits. I remember in C.S. Lewis' Screwtape Letters, the words of a senior demon, that one of the greatest achievements the devil can ever have is to convince people that he does not exist. Think about it. If we say there is no evil, then we may fear nothing, but we do not escape danger. We live in a world where there are many competing ideas, many differing views, many beliefs. And the tendency is to say that they are all equal, all as good as one another. This is my choice, people say, and that is your choice - your belief and my belief. There is not - to the modern mind - any right or wrong views, just different choices. It is all a matter of choice. Choice is King. Perhaps it is the only value left, the right to choose.
But some choices are good and some are bad. To go back to the Gospel, some spirits are clean and some are evil. Good and bad do exist. If we think there is no evil, only different choices, then we are in very great danger.
Another wise man, G.K. Chesterton, famously said 'When people cease to believe in something, then they will believe in anything'. And so it is. Strange and wonderful ideas about life, spirits, angels, afterlife, reincarnation, horoscopes, fortune telling, chance, fate, superstitions of every kind abound. It isn't that people don't believe anymore - on the contrary they believe in almost anything so long as it not traditional, tried and tested. It must be some kind of novelty, something different: their choice.
But all ideas cannot be right, so some of them must be wrong, and if they are wrong, they could be dangerous. Some spirits are good and some are bad. Bad means unclean, in the language of the Gospel, in other words evil.
How can we know? Here is a simple test. If the ideas, beliefs, fads are only about self-improvement, self-esteem, assertion, fulfilment, individuality then we are right to be suspicious. These obsessions are basically selfish. They exclude others, and they exclude God. However, if our belief, our way of life involves sacrifice, self-giving, commitment to God and to the needs and good of others, not just of ourselves, then we may have turned to the right road.
That is what it means by 'repentance': a turning again of the individual away from an obsession with ourselves, and towards God and the needs of others.