That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him. In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.
How odd. Once again Jesus orders the demons to be quiet about his identity. A few chapters hence, Jesus will “sternly order” his disciples to do the same (Mark 8:30). This odd behavior is particularly striking in the Gospel of Mark. In fact scholars have a term for it: the “Messianic Secret.”
Last week we read that Jesus cast out a demon in the synagogue, and his “fame began to spread throughout the region” (Mark 1:28). This week Jesus heals the sick and casts out more demons. Crowds grow. Expectations rise. “The whole city gathers” (Mark 1:33). Jesus slips away under the cover of darkness to a deserted place where he prays in silence (Mark 1:35).
While praying, “Simon and his companions hunted for him” (Mark 1:36). When they find Jesus they tell him, “Everyone is searching for you,” (Mark 1:37) as if to say, “What are you doing out here? The crowds love you, your stock is rising, let’s ramp this thing up!” Instead of caving in to the cravings of the crowd, Jesus says, “Let’s go on to the neighboring towns.”
Jesus handles the crowd the same way he handles the religious authorities and even the demons – which is to say, he handles them very carefully, as if they were some kind of unstable explosive that could detonate at any moment. The word “crowd” in the Gospels is something of technical word that can also be translated as “mob.” (While the word “crowd” is not specifically used in this week’s text, it is clearly implied and it’s used repeatedly throughout the Gospels).
Anthropologist Rene Girard and theologian Walter Wink have written extensively on how crowds are highly unstable and volatile socio-spiritual realities. They are more than the sum of their parts. They are easily moved, especially towards violence. This is why at every turn throughout the Gospels Jesus refuses to be the puppet of the crowd’s desire, which can one day shout “Hosanna, Hosanna,” and the next “Crucify him, crucify him.”
Crowds hold the collective spirit of those who inspire them. In the Gospels, it is primarily the religious authorities and the religious system itself, steeped in sacrificial violence, that gives the crowd its collective spirit. And the crowd is completely unconscious of the spirit that holds them captive. That is why Jesus is so hard on spiritual leaders and so filled with compassion when it comes to crowds (Mark 6:34).
Jesus sees through the superficial shouts of “Hosanna” and “Crucify him.” He knows that crowds need kings and scapegoats like junkies need a fix. Highly charged crowds are constantly on the hunt for ways to release their pent-up energy.
In recognizing the reality of satanic power, we must consider the possibility that when Jesus is casting out demons, he is casting out the very spirit of the religious system itself and the hidden violence of the crowd. In other words, demons are the manifestation of bad religion. If you think I am making this up, notice how this week’s text ends with an undeniably strong association between the religious system and demons. “And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons (Mark 1:39).
Reading the text this way forces us (especially those of us who are religious leaders) to take responsibility for the “demons” that we keep producing. Demons are mirrors for what we want to keep hidden about ourselves. They are the visible incarnation of society’s collective fear and violence turned outward and concentrated on a vulnerable person or group.
Jesus clearly understands the triangular relationship between religious authorities, crowds, and the demonic. He knows that to blow the cover on this stuff is to put himself in harm’s way and become the ultimate scapegoat. That is why he flies under the radar and hopes not to be detected too soon. That is why Jesus orders demons and disciples alike to be quiet and keep the “messianic secret” as long as possible.
Jesus knows that in due course he will be crucified, and the fruits of violent religion will be put on full display for the whole world to see. When we look upon the face of the Crucified One, we will see the demonic fruit of our own violence and the mercy of the One who forgives us completely. In so doing, Jesus will make it possible for “crowds” to become genuine, loving, and stable communities of peace that will transform the world.
May it be so.