Oddly, there are no exorcisms in the entire Old Testament. The 45 books of the Hebrew Scriptures certainly recognize the existence and horror of evil, but demon possession is never encountered within its pages. Neither does the Gospel according to St. John feature any episodes of demon possession nor any demonic exorcisms.
On the other hand, the relatively brief Gospel according to St. Mark has 34 references to demon possession and demonic exorcism. Clearly this is no accident of omission on St. John’s part nor is it an embellishment on St. Mark’s part.
Throughout St. John’s Gospel, Christ is very much the Risen Christ. Jesus is decidedly and always the master of the situation. Always in charge, the Master’s triumph over death and victory over evil is inevitable. For St. John, the death and resurrection of Christ were the ultimate exorcism by which the devil and his demons were roundly vanquished once and for all. There was no need to cite the minor triumphs over evil that are found in Matthew, Mark and Luke. The empty tomb was enough proof of victory over demonic forces.
St. Mark, on the other hand, is less concerned with ultimate victory and more focused on the daily struggle with evil that constitutes the Christian life. Certainly St. Mark believed in the resurrection and in Christ’s triumphs over sin and death. But St. Mark also believed that Christians had to be reassured in the perennial struggle with evil that preoccupies the believer on this side of the grave. Christ has triumphed over evil but evil is still very much a part of daily life, family life, community life, even church life. Christians should not be discouraged if they experience sin, encounter wrongdoing and endure suffering even after their conversions to Christ. Although Christ is already victorious, his followers must work out their personal victories “in fear and trembling,” as St. Paul sanely observed. St. Mark is simply being a realist. Life on earth is a vale of tears, as later generations of Christians would phrase it. There are still a lot of demons that need exorcising, sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively. But the presence of evil in daily life should not be a cause for ultimate disappointment. St. Mark deliberately reminds his readers that Jesus is still available and still alert to confront evil, to denounce evil, to evict evil. Through Christ, deliverance is accessible daily and not only at the end of time.
Mankind continues to face evil on several levels. There is, of course, the personal evil that finds mankind involved in the anger, envy, dishonesty and laziness that constitutes everyday life. Some of these sins do not separate the soul from God but they certainly impede the work of virtue. “A string can keep a bird down as well as a rope,” a spiritual director once advised. The sins of the workaday world should not be neglected. More egregious sins clearly have no place in the Christian life. The Bible cites four sins that cry out to God for vengeance: murder, neglect of orphans and widows, depriving the worker of his wages and sodomy. Undoubtedly this list of serious sins could be expanded: total neglect of worship, marital infidelity, financial corruption, abusive treatment, among others.
In addition to personal sins, the alert Christian will recognize systemic evil, evil that is inherent in the structures of society. History offers slavery as the classic evil which was built right into the fabric of society. No doubt future generations will look back and cite contraception in its manifold guises including abortion, reproductive experimentation, same-sex unions and infant neglect as an evil built into our contemporary lifestyle. The recent economic collapse reminds believers that our economic system may be replete with injustices, inequities and inequalities. Christian believers have an obligation not only to examine their own consciences but also to be aware of the immoral and unethical and even criminal possibilities that have been absorbed into national life. Corporate, national and even international sins are just as offensive to God as the personal evils that vex the devout Catholic. St. Mark’s several exorcisms are reminders that the personal and systemic evils which mankind confronts every day are not trivial. They constitute a daily battle from which the true believer must not shrink.