It took a wild and crazy guy – someone out of his mind – to recognize who Jesus was.
It happened early in the ministry of Jesus at a synagogue in Capernaum where he was teaching with great effectiveness (Mark 1:21-28).
The folks gathered there on the Sabbath were impressed by how different this young rabbi was from the scribes who were their normal fare. Evidently it wasn’t just what he was teaching but also the authority with which he taught.
Those were people in their right minds: tame and typical.
But could we suggest that these right-minded, tame, typical folks had not a hint that the difference they discerned was not one of degree but of kind?
Maybe that’s what being sane and sober leads to.
Maybe it always takes someone possessed of an unclean spirit – which was the condition of the wild man – to recognize both how much trouble he was in when faced with this untypical, young and brash rabbi as well as how much danger everyone in the room was in.
The crazy man didn’t ask Jesus: “What have you to do with me, Jesus of Nazareth?” Nor: “Have you come to destroy me?”
No, he asked what Jesus had to do with “us.” He asked if Jesus was out to destroy “us.”
In recognizing Jesus as “the Holy One of God,” the crazy guy was alerting the whole congregation what was at stake for everyone gathered there and beyond.
Jesus rebuked “him.”
A reader runs the risk of thinking that it was the crazy man whom Jesus was rebuking. But the next part of the sentence makes it abundantly clear that Jesus wasn’t rebuking the crazy man but the unclean spirit that possessed him.
It was the unclean spirit that Jesus commanded to be silent and to come out of the wild and crazy guy.
The rest of the congregation immediately recognized it too, since they finally realized that, unlike their scribes, Jesus had the authority to take control of the unclean spirits.
What the text doesn’t reveal to us was whether the other members of the congregation realized (as the now cleansed man clearly did) that the unclean spirits resided in them as well, and that Jesus had the authority to cleanse them too.
When the wild man had earlier asked the question not just about “me” but “us,” he was speaking for all of the unclean spirits that lived in even tame and typical people, even in people in their so-called right minds.
In fact, I think it is altogether necessary to assume that the once possessed man didn’t limit his assessment of the pervasiveness of the unclean spirits to the congregation, but rather contended that the unclean – indeed, evil – spirits were on the loose throughout the known world.
It’s altogether necessary to assume that he believed that Jesus of Nazareth was entirely capable of challenging and overcoming those pervasive spirits, as Jesus invited people to repent and embrace the good news that the reign of a God of all-encompassing love was at hand.
That is what was at stake in recognizing Jesus as the agent of that God.
It’s the same today with the unclean and evil spirits of vast global economic inequality; the huge chasms in health care and education; the enormous gorges between those with nutritious food to eat and clean water to drink and adequate shelter on one side and those without those bare necessities of life on the other; and the great divides between some children being safe and protected and millions of others left vulnerable.
So the pressing question is still whether we need a wild and crazy guy to help us realize how the unclean and evil spirits are at loose in and among us and recognize Jesus for who he is.
Or, maybe, whether we need to be the wild and crazy ones who recognize our own complicity with the evil spirits and help others recognize Jesus for who he is as the agent of a loving God’s in-breaking reign.
Larry Greenfield retired on Dec. 31, 2018 as the executive director of the Parliament of the World’s Religions. He served previously as executive minister of the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago, a regional judicatory of the American Baptist Churches U.S.A, and the theologian-in-residence for the Community Renewal Society.