Jesus begins his ministry, according to Mark’s Gospel, in the synagogue at Capernaum facing someone with an “unclean spirit.” You would expect a synagogue to be a quiet, orderly place, but this day it’s a place of shouting and confusion. Like the messy world we live in today.
What’s a unclean spirit anyway? Here’s an explanation from a commentary on Mark’s gospel by John R. Donahue, SJ, and Daniel Harrington, SJ.
“In this context ‘unclean’ (akatharton) primarily connotes not a moral (even less a sexual) fault), but something opposed to the “holy.” In the command of the Old Testament to be holy (Leviticus 11,44) it implies life, wholeness and completeness,( Leviticus 21, 17-21) whereas uncleanness implies something that should not be, something out of place ( e.g. soil in a farmer’s field is productive, while in a house it’s dirt). The opposite of the realm of the holy is the demonic, hence the spirits there are “unclean”. Physical defects or psychological aberrations can make a person “unclean”in a sense of incomplete, imperfect and out of order.”(The Gospel of Mark, Sacra Pagina, Liturgical Press 2002 page 80.)
Jesus did not engage primarily the intellectual establishment or the religious establishment when he came. He engaged the chaotic world of the “unclean spirits.” He set up a “field hospital” to use a phrase dear to Pope Francis. That’s the messy, scary world we live in.
Just think of the poor man in the tombs further on in Mark’s gospel, chained and hurting himself. Who wants to deal with him? But Jesus gives his disciples “authority” over unclean spirits. His followers have the power to take them on, to deal with the “messy” world they belong to.
And when they’re done? They’re never done. That’s the world we live in..