It must have been amazing to see Jesus perform an exorcism. Such a thing would be mind-blowing to witness at any time, but there seems to be something special in the Son of God, with whom all authority and power rest, casting out evil spirits. When we think about the exorcisms Jesus did during His earthly ministry, we must guard against two factors that dull our senses to spiritual reality. The first is our modern bent toward materialist reductionism. What I mean by this is the prevailing thought, shot through our entire Western culture, that all of reality consists, at bottom, of only matter in motion. Thinking of the cosmos as a machine that works according to brutely inexplicable scientific laws, fully calculable in all detail, leaves no room for anything else. Along with this are fictional portrayals and dramatizations of the spiritual realm, such as we find in Hollywood movies. I’m not only referring to The Exorcist but also movies like Ghost or what is found in the horror genre or documentary programs about the occult. Entertaining as these stories might be, they are almost always completely detached from what the Scriptures and church teach about the spiritual order.
Visualizations of spirits as ghastly or ghoulish substances, devils with horns and pitchforks, and the like take us away from the reality of the situation. Materialism and dramatization feed into our habitual downplaying of the role of exorcism in Jesus’ ministry. You probably don’t hear many sermons or homilies on these passages. Yet, these acts of love and compassion were clearly very important, otherwise, we would not read about them, nor would we see these events referred to as frequently (around 60 or so).
In today’s passage, Jesus drives out a spirit that was making a man mute. The crowds did not respond with incredulity at the occurrence of an exorcism. But they did not know what to make of it. They did not like the way Jesus cast out the demon. So, they accused Him of being in league with evil spirits. Jesus calls out the absurdity of this accusation and teaches us something very important about Himself.
Jesus refers to a person being bound by a strong man. Here He speaks in a powerful sense to the spiritual binding that shackles our souls. This happens overtly, as in the case of outright demon possession, or covertly, as in the case of habitual sin and impenitence. In some cases, there is no difference. In fact, the latter might be worse. The incredible strength of the spiritual forces opposed to God can bind us to the point where we are unable to free ourselves. The ‘strong man’ binds us. But there is always One stronger. When Jesus frees us, He attacks the spirit(s) that have taken hold, utterly crushing them. He embarrasses them to the point where their armor is taken away and distributed as a spoil of victory (cf Ephesians 4:8).
To this, Jesus adds that whoever is not with Him scatters. There is a two-fold meaning here. The first hearkens to the idea of malevolent spirits as those who scatter or divide. The Latin meaning devil is diabolos, which means ‘divider’. What the enemy wants is to divide God’s people; from Him, from themselves, and from each other. The enemy wants to scatter the flock so that individual sheep are easier prey. The other sense of scattering is that those not with Jesus will be scattered by Him. They will be divided against themselves and driven into confusion and retreat. When Jesus frees captives, the captors are scattered.