The Hardest Question was an experiment in preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. All posting is finished, but the content will continue to live here in archive form. You can discover new content by former THQ curator Russell Rathbun at Question the Text.


Power Over Unclean Spirits?

What does this gospel message have to say to say to us today?

by Carol Howard Merritt

Gospel Reading:  Mark 1:21-28

For Sunday, Jan. 29, Year B − Epiphany 4

I was in college, on a short mission trip to Uganda, Africa. One evening, we were at a religious boarding school for girls, leading a service in a concrete block building. The humid night air flowed through the open windows, and the crickets sang in the background of our liturgies. At the end of the service, a timid young teenager asked one of the leaders if he could pray for her. Of course, he did.


It was not long into the prayer, when she began to tremor and scream. It was more than a super-sized tantrum. It seemed like something quite outside of her took over her being. And we spent the next two hours in the middle of an exorcism, with voices, deep with authority commanding that the evil spirit come out of this young woman’s body.

I stood, understanding the cliché about a person’s hair standing on end for the first time. I whispered pleas that God would protect her mind and body, that God would somehow calm the brutal storm erupting in her.


Later, the British headmistress sidled up to me. She smiled and said with a voice I would expect to hear narrating a bright, cheerful

BBC report, “I see you had a live wire this evening!” She went on to explain with matter-of-fact clarity, that the girl was a descendant of a long line of medicine men. Because of that fact, she had been possessed with evil spirits.

As I recall that evening now, in the midst of my uptight D.C. culture, I often wonder how to understand the event. If the same thing happened here to a person of means, we would undoubtedly sedate, hospitalize, isolate, and label her. We would maintain control over the teenager and our own fear, in all of the ways that we do in our modern world—with medicating, institutionalizing, and clinical naming.

Do we believe?

I have great respect for modern psychology and I’m incredibly grateful that we no longer think of mental illness as demonic possession. Yet as I come to this passage in Mark, I wonder, what does it means that Jesus has authority over unclean spirits? It seems clear in the text and it felt clear on that particular night in Africa. But what does it mean in the contexts in which we work and serve?

Do we have faith that can bring wholeness in the midst of our heart-wrenching illnesses? Do we believe that there is healing power in our communities? Do we isolate those who struggle, keeping them out of our view in order to contain our own fears? Or do we surround them and pray for them? Do we only maintain control through the tricks of modern treatments—medicating and labeling?

The Hardest Question

Can we recognize the importance of relinquishing our control, admitting powerlessness, and reaching out for a wholeness that might come from a God who saves us?

Carol Howard Merritt is a pastor at Western Presbyterian Church, an intergenerational congregation in Washington, D.C. Western’s deep commitment to serving the poor in the city has helped to initiate programs like Miriam’s Kitchen, a social service program for the homeless which provides a hot, nutritious breakfast and dinner for over 200 men and women each weekday. Carol is the author of Reframing Hope (Alban, 2010) and Tribal Church, (Alban, 2007). Carol is the co-host of God Complex Radio with Landon Whitsitt. And she blogs for the Huffington Post. Carol is a frequent conference speaker. Her blog is at


  1. Paul says:

    Love where you went with this!

  2. Thanks, Paul.

  3. Jennifer says:

    All very nice. It’s an interesting passage. I think I’m going to acknowledge what and how our modern, educated culture would label a demon possession. We tend to call it mental illness and control it with meds. But whatever the cause the result is dis-ease and suffering. That’s what Jesus responds to-the suffering, the deep ache of powers which hurt us. If that’s demon possession then, yes, I’m dealing with that even this week. But the insight I’m coming to is this: those ‘demons’ realized that Jesus had authority over them. And that is very comforting to me. Because the horrible things that cause me pain-they overwhelm me. There’s no greater comfort I can then have other than Jesus has control over those forces. Because I sure don’t. I thought I did, but I don’t. And it’s deliciously ironic that Jesus’ authority is recognized by the demons. And that others speak of his authority after they witness what he has done. What has done? He brought relief to the suffering. He ended it. That’s the Good News I’m grasping for today.

  4. Jennifer says:

    Oh, and as far as the video blog goes-hahaha! I enjoy these so much. Chloroform and the dumpster. Has THQ considered having a response thread for the video blogs too?

  5. Paula says:

    You know, I’ve been thinking about all those stories you hear about the priest or missionary who found somebody in Africa who was demon-possessed. Every time the subject comes up, somebody remembers some story.

    Doesn’t anybody wonder why those demons leave white people alone?

  6. Richard Diaz de Leon says:

    I think a better question is why doesn’t any one exorcize the demons from white folk? ;-)

    Carol, I love your story. . . kick ass!

    What strikes me about the scripture isn’t the relationship between Church and political power/collusion-although that is clever and probably accurate. It’s also, not the whole demon possession equals mental illness rap, even though that was a very cool story. It is, however, the difference between how the congregation view Jesus vs how the demons viewed Him.

    The congregation saw Jesus not with authority but as one who spoke “as” one with authority, or like someone with authority, or someone who seemed to have authority. The demons, on the other hand, KNEW Jesus didn’t just have authority but power. And, not just earthly power/authority, Jesus has power/authority that’s beyond. . . beyond. Talk about your fear of God. It wasn’t until the demons point out who Jesus is (and their subsequent exorcism) that the people say He taught with -not “like”- authority. Why do we Christians take so long to see things that are obvious, even to Atheists?

    Some Native American tribes used to say that a persons greatness was measured in how great his enemies be. . .

    I like to ask my congregation this question, “If you were put on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?” In other words, does any one outside (or perhaps, inside) the church get nervous when you walk in the room because they know that with you came the Holy Spirit of a Living and Loving and, dare I say, Cleansing God who heals people and brings wholeness, (what’s a little kataphatic spirituality between friends?) even to systems that are broken and abusive.

  7. Dennis says:

    The proof is in the pudding, as they say. Jesus is authoritative because he can do more than issue orders; he can back them up. I think this is, finally, where we all eventually arrive. Jesus is authoritative for us because we have experienced what he can do, how he can heal, in our own lives and in the lives of our fellow believers. This is a much stronger basis for authority than, say, the historicity or scientific accuracy of the Bible, or the moral competence of church leaders, or the contextually of church tradition. The living Christ, at work, going against that which is evil, even demonic–who can argue with that kind of success?

How do you read?