At our Sunday Masses in “ordinary time” this year we are hearing Gospel readings from St. Mark. More than the other Gospel writers, St. Mark describes Jesus campaigning against “unclean spirits.”

He drives them out of individuals, and in one of last month’s Sunday Gospels, he sent his apostles out two by two to preach repentance, giving them “authority over unclean spirits” (Mk 6:7). We know today that illnesses are caused by bacteria and viruses and mutations of genes. These were unknown to Jesus’ audiences and to people in general for centuries afterwards. Jesus used their notions of “evil spirits” to get across his spiritual message. His instant healings of some bodily illnesses had to be true miracles, unexplainable by our modern scientific knowledge of medicine. Nevertheless, such healings identified him as God’s agent, one who brought God’s all-powerful presence to them. And that presence was a loving and merciful deliverance from bodily evil. 

Those unclean spirits also included compulsive vices like pride, cruelty and greed. We can’t repent of most physicals diseases which afflict us while we are trying to avoid them. An exception may be alcohol and drugs where we may have freedom of choice not to abuse them in the beginning. However, once hooked, they control us, we don’t control them. They are, in truth, demons more powerful than the addicted person. With addictions, repentance is the decision to admit one’s helplessness and the willingness to put oneself in the hands of God and trained addiction counselors. But we can, and must, repent of vices like pride, cruelty and greed.

This was the repentance that St. John the Baptist called for. In fact, he was the last of a long line of Old Testament prophets who preached the same message. Repentance in biblical terms meant a reversal of values, a change of vision concerning the meaning of life, a change of priorities, living with a new spirit of compassion and love toward others. The demons of pride, cruelty and greed needed to be cast out and replaced by the spirit of compassion, love and self-sacrifice embodied by Jesus. That’s why Jesus insisted that, if people didn’t accept the message he had given his apostles to preach, they were to just leave and take their message to another village. The spirit of compassion and love of neighbor that Jesus taught demanded free acceptance, a change of heart, a willingness to sacrifice oneself. It could not be forced on anyone. To those who willingly accepted it, free admittance was given to God’s kingdom, a kingdom of truth, justice, peace and love. Its members lived by the Holy Spirit who united them to God.

The prophets of the Old Testament recognized the spiritual demons of pride, cruelty and greed.

Isaiah spoke against the alliances that Jewish kings were making with pagan nations in order to appear as powerful as them. Ezekiel chastised the Jews of his day for “filling the land with violence” (Ezr 8:17) and prophesied the day when God would take away their stony hearts and give them “a new spirit” and “hearts of flesh” (Ezr 36:26). Amos condemned the powerful of his day for despising the poor and “selling them for less than a pair of sandals” (Ezr 2:6). Jesus proclaimed himself the fulfillment of the Old Testament, the way, the truth and the light.

How far our world today has come from even asking the question of what God might be asking it to do. In our country we elected a president on the promise that he would make America great again. But great seems to be measured by how we can get the best of other nations in trade wars. We are not proud of what we can do for the world, but rather what we can fleece out of it.  We have not raised the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour since July 24, 2009. The state of Louisiana has no minimum wage law. So what are we selling the labor of the poor for when the lowest paid fulltime workers are below the poverty line and not making enough to afford medical insurance? We have not come up with a decent immigration plan since former President George W. Bush offered a reasonable one, only to see Congress shoot it down. Our hopes for protecting the lives of the unborn are up again with the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh, but polls show that the majority of Americans are stone hearted on that issue. Many will not admit that the unborn are human beings with civil rights, much less the God-given right to life. Jesus called us to be “the light of the world.” Yet, according to our leaders, we cannot trust anyone, especially the news media, to tell us the truth. A successful democracy and false news are contradictions. The first cannot function if the second is pervasive.

Jesus left us with no political plan. But as Father Michael Simone SJ wrote in America magazine, “We recognize unclean spirits today, not through the illnesses they cause but through the minds they enrapture. Individuals, communities, even whole nations can fall prey to systems of thought that obscure God’s love or subvert the means to imitate it. Suicide, addiction, ethical confusion and a general sense of hopelessness are just a few of the signs that unclean spirits prowl our world.”

We need some liberation from those kind of spirits. We had better pray Psalm 85, “Lord, let us see your kindness, and grant us your salvation.”

Father Carville is a retired priest in the Diocese of Baton Rouge and writes on current topics for The Catholic Commentator. He can be reached at johnny carville@gmail.com.