Mark’s Gospel enjoys a priority among all the early accounts of Christ. Possibly it was the first written down, as most scholars hold. By tradition, it was the “gospel of Peter”: Mark wrote it down, yet it was Peter’s story “as told to” Mark. And Peter was “the Rock,” the first of the apostles, the first pope.
It is common today (even if it used to be more common) for non-Christians to concede that at least Jesus was “a great moral teacher.” This view has been exploded quite well by C.S. Lewis and Peter Kreeft: Jesus taught he was the Son of God who could forgive sins, and that our salvation hinged on Him. But these are delusional claims if not true. Therefore, either Jesus was God or he was a bad man. There is no other alternative. And on neither alternative is he simply “a great moral teacher.” The Fathers had argued the same: aut Deus aut homo malus.
So the view that Jesus is “a great moral teacher” is not stable. If he is great, you should believe his teachings and accept that he is also God; if his teachings are false, he cannot be great. Unfortunately, though, an argument like this does not point the way to the truth. On its own, it is just as likely to compel someone to reject Jesus as to accept him.
But what emerges from the Gospel of Mark is a stronger and more striking “argument,” and maybe one more needed in our time. It’s not that Jesus is not simply a moral teacher – it’s rather that Jesus is presented there as not even a “moral teacher”! To put it baldly, he proclaims something as much as teaches, and what he proclaims is the incursion of the “Kingdom of God” into the dominion of the devil.
What is at stake in the Gospel, in Mark’s account, is not so much the right sort of advice on how to live, but rather the fact that a spiritual authority has arrived which can banish and subdue the devil.
A caveat: yes, some unbalanced scholars have made heavy weather of such points; also, the teaching of the Church over the centuries provides the only sound means of interpreting Scripture. Yet it remains true that Mark offers a bracing correction to some of our own biases, for example, a certain nonchalance in how we deal with sin and sinful acts.
Jesus’ first miracle in Mark (ch.1) is an exorcism: “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?,” the devil shouts, “Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” From the start, this power over the devil becomes what people refer to as “his teaching”: “What is this?,” they say, “A new teaching! With authority, he commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” (1:27)
When Jesus appoints twelve as his apostles, he sends them out to teach, giving them “authority to cast out demons.” (3:15) That Jesus has this power is his chief trait in the eyes of his enemies: “by the prince of demons he casts out the demons,” they say, conceding the fact.
When he begins to teach (ch. 4), he speaks only in parables about the incursion of the Kingdom. The very first parable mentions Satan and his resistance efforts, snatching away the word that is sown. (4:15) When he starts doing works of mercy, his cure of “the Gerasene demoniac” gets the most attention in a chapter which includes also the cure of the woman with a hemorrhage and the raising of Jairus’ daughter (ch 5). When he actually sends out the twelve to preach, their message is “that men should repent,” associated with “they cast out many demons.” (ch. 6)
Jesus’ first dealing with a pagan, which shows that the Gospel is being preached to the nations, is to exorcize a demon that afflicts the daughter of the Syrophoenician woman. (ch. 7) His famous rebuke of Peter shows how he identifies the opposition to the Kingdom: “Get behind me Satan!” (ch. 8) The question of whether someone is with him or against him hinges precisely on whether someone is casting out demons in the name of Jesus. (11: 38-41)
It’s not until the 10th chapter that you encounter “moral teaching” at all. Tellingly, for our time, it concerns the indissolubility of marriage and welcoming children. After that, Mark’s Gospel is devoted to the events of Holy Week.
But we must face the contrast. Many of us pray the St. Michael prayer after Mass. The Holy Father mentions the devil frequently, clearly treating demons as a reality. And we all know about Screwtape.
However, in general the “culture” of the faith in which we are immersed is disturbingly different from Mark’s. We have lost the sense that a struggle against the devil is part of Christian discipleship, and that precisely here the Church has necessary power.
In our complacent attitude we are at odds not merely with Mark but with historic Christianity: “By our first parents’ sin, the devil has acquired a certain domination over man,” (CCC 407); “Since Baptism signifies liberation from sin and from its instigator the devil, one or more exorcisms are pronounced over the candidate.” (CCC 1237)
So where have all the devils gone? Let’s hope they can be largely banished outside the realms of “Christendom.” But the ramparts of that civilization have been breached – even though the sacramental life indeed remains a safeguard against them. Devils are immaterial beings who cannot be destroyed. They are said to “prowl about the world” until the end of this generation. If we concede that they ever have existed, we would be smart to presume they are not distant from us now.
*Image: Exorcism of the Demons at Arezzo by Giotto, c. 1298 [Basilica of Saint Francis (Basilica Papale di San Francesco), Assisi]. This fresco (in the upper church) is #10 of 25 painted by Giotto di Bondone and/or his studio.