The Human Dilemma

Fourth Sunday Scripture Readings

“Lack of power is our dilemma.” That sentence is taken from the book, Alcoholics Anonymous, and it describes the plight of the addict, for whom willpower is useless. I think that’s an appropriate way to begin our meditation on today’s gospel reading since this passage from the Gospel of Saint Mark is an exposé on power—the power of evil and the power of God.

We humans have a messed-up understanding of evil and the power associated with it. Since the beginning of time, we’ve tried to explain evil through stories and metaphors and have succeeded only in leaving most people in a state of utter confusion on the topic. As a result, evil is too often confused with its personification: the Satan—the spiritual prosecuting attorney who levies accusations against us—or the devil (from the Greek diabolein, to render asunder)—the one who brings discord and dissension and pits us one against another.

Throughout history, people have tried to personify evil, and at times it does seem that evil might have a mind of its own. Therefore, evil personified (the so-called “fallen angels”) have often been conflated with the angels of God who themselves are personifications of God’s presence and power operating in our human world. This attempt to draw a parallel between the personified power of God and the personified power of evil has led, unsurprisingly, to a false and confusing dichotomy. It’s become acceptable to picture God on one side and the devil on the other, both locked in mortal combat. Despite its popularity, that image is patently absurd.

You see, quite simply, evil has no power of its own at all. In fact, evil is rather the absence of something that should be there. Do you know why all modern swimming pools have two bottom drains? It’s because, when there was only one drain, people kept getting sucked into it. The addition of a second drain breaks the vacuum that causes the suction and neutralizes its power. But, if you think about it, drains have no sucking power at all. It’s the weight of the water trying to escape into the void that attempts to push everything out with it. Evil works exactly the same way. Evil has no power of its own except its need to have its emptiness filled. Evil’s power is borrowed from whatever it can attract and draw into itself.

In human terms, evil’s attractiveness is derived from its false promise to provide what someone imagines is lacking in her- or himself. Yet, it’s like two adjoining rooms with unequal air pressures. When the connecting door is opened, the pressure in the lower room rises … but at the expense of the pressure in the other room. That’s why “misery loves company,” because each is trying to draw from the other what’s lacking in themselves.

The most frequently asked question on this topic is, “Why did God create evil, and why does God allow it to exist?” The answer is surprisingly simple: God did not create evil. God only created everything good. However, apart from God himself who is limitless Being, every created being has limits. Things have limits in size: length, width, and depth. They have limits in mass: how much they weigh; in location: here rather than anywhere else; and limits in time: they come into being, remain a while, and pass out of existence again. It’s these universal limitations shared by all created things that provide the conditions for evil to exist. What we’re talking about here—sometimes called “physical evil”—isn’t evil in a moral sense. They’re just conditions we characterize as evil because changes in the material world often cause us pain and discomfort.

Moral evil is something else entirely. Moral evil derives from our human free will and occurs when people attempt to fill their perceived limitations, voids, and inadequacies by robbing what they think they need from others. They make others poorer by depriving them of what’s rightfully theirs, not realizing that what they covet from others will never satisfy their own cravings. Lack of power is our dilemma because we didn’t create that inner void and we cannot create anything that will adequately fill it.

So, we find Jesus in the synagogue teaching. The gospel says he was teaching with authority—the authority of a rabbi who had the power to make moral precepts and to enforce them. According to Mark, the content of Jesus’s preaching was the proclamation of the arrival of the reign of God. That means the coming of the power and authority of the Creator himself. That’s why the first challenge to Jesus’s authority comes from a man with an “unclean spirit.” That’s nothing other than someone dominated by a spiritual vacuum. That person is attempting to compensate for his own perceived weakness by tearing down or destroying someone else. He attempts to put Jesus down and discredit him in front of others. That attack is nothing but a ploy for an emotionally and spiritually weak person to make himself feel powerful.

Jesus produced a cure through the exercise of God’s power and authority flowing through him. His power didn’t derive from himself alone. True power and authority can never be borrowed from anyone or anything created, and therefore limited. Limited means bring limited solutions. We’re brought to the inescapable conclusion that there is only One who has all power, and we can only take advantage of it by letting go of our need to run the universe and to surrender our will to the will of God without rancor or complaint.

When we get all worried and upset about how futile our efforts seem and how the world isn’t evolving according to our plan, we need only take a moment and seat ourselves at the feet of Jesus, who’s teaching us about the power of the reign of God. When we start to complain about how unfair the world is to us and how nothing’s going our way, if we listen, we can hear him say to that empty place inside us, “Quiet! Let the worries and the concerns and the frustrations that nag you be gone. Yes, you are powerless, but there is One who has all power. That One is God. May you find him now.”

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