Today’s gospel depicts an encounter between Jesus and a deranged man, who comes to Jesus with what remains of his viable self. He cannot fight the demons within, apart from a power greater than his own. Apparently he believes that Jesus can heal him and set him on a new life path.
In ancient times it was believed that spiritual beings occupied the world. Some were angels, thought of as benevolent beings, mostly messengers from God who acted on the behalf of God and humanity.
But there were also evil angels, terrible supra-terrestrial beings, cosmic powers—all thought to be agents of Satan.
Such devils were believed to work malignant deeds on a vulnerable populace through means as diverse as political institutions, natural disasters, and of course, personal vulnerability. They lived in unclean places, lurked in tombs, or howled in the desert. These malicious beings were thought by the ancients to cause certain diseases, particularly those involving a loss of control: what we call today epilepsy, delirium, convulsions, hysteria, or nervous disorders. It was a common belief in the Oriental world.
Of course, today we believe that to experience deliverance from such destructive forces, one must choose—and surrender—to a Source that is more powerful. Sometimes to overcome the effects of evil in the world, it means submitting to the surgeon’s skill or the work of an antibiotic or chemotherapy or psychotherapy or a recovery group or prayer—or a combination of any and all of these things.
However, common to each of these treatments is a request for help and the willingness to risk one’s life on a choice. Surrender of self is essential. One has to make a serious commitment to transformation. When a person turns to God from evil, it requires an admission that his or her way is not working, and can lead only to destruction; and that only a power greater than oneself can release and restore the person to wholeness and to God.
We fall into different camps on this issue. Since the Enlightenment, many people have reinterpreted the biblical accounts of exorcisms and miracles. Everything can be explained away or treated with therapy or drugs. Jesus did not really walk on water—he walked on a sandbar. He did not really multiply the loaves and fishes—people learned to share. All unhealthy behaviors can be helped with drugs and psychiatry.
My concern about such thinking is that rationalizations such as these miss the point of the Gospel accounts. Jesus’ exorcisms and other miracles were not simply displays of raw power meant to dazzle, but were signifiers of the “Good News” of God’s reign and evil’s imminent demise. When we rush to explain away the miracles, we risk overlooking their deeper meaning for us.
The other view is that Satan and the demons are alive and active, corrupting culture and engaging in spiritual warfare against the faithful. While we know this to be true at some level—there is evil in the world—a danger of this isolated understanding is that it can lead to radical dualism—a view of God and the demonic forces as pitted in a more or less equal contest. Christianity affirms that there is one Creator, one true ruler of the world. Evil powers might be dangerous, but are more or less parasites on God’s good creation. They are not autonomous powers capable of overthrowing God’s reign.
Another danger is that it could lead us to see problems such as clinical depression as strictly spiritual or to blame social problems on demonic control, with the result that we fail to see our contributions to the trouble or avail ourselves of legitimate therapies or support groups such as AA.
On the other hand, affirming the reality of spiritual powers can have important positive consequences. Superficial “problem-solving” approaches (whether to medical treatment, family, church, social relations, or politics) may fail if they do not attend to the spiritual dimension.
However we make sense of demons today, the message of the gospel is that Jesus is Lord: he releases us from all kinds of bondage and empowers us to live a new life in service and in praise of God. And rather than continually debating the nature of the pathology, it is even more important to focus in our story on the cure Jesus offered and offers. As the man was able to throw himself at the feet of Jesus, God’s power was released. The essence of the text is that God’s power manifests itself most dramatically when we surrender ours.
The villagers in the country surrounding the Gerasenes would have likely preferred that the man with the legion of demons stay sick rather than jeopardize their investment in a herd of pigs. But the healing of persons usually means the upsetting of the status quo, since movement from disease to wholeness calls for an existential change in the life of the person healed. This is not always a change that is welcomed by others around us. People fear change, even change that can heal.
Homeostasis—keeping things the way they are—protects the sick system, but prevents its members from growing and being transformed. This is true not only in individual lives and in families, but also in institutions, and yes, churches. A few sick souls can manipulate an entire congregation into a pattern of behavior that tries to “manage” the difficult persons and maintain peace at all costs. The result is that the church is stuck in idle, or worse, stuck in counter manipulative behaviors. New and wonderful things cannot happen, and growth, be it spiritual or in numbers, is stymied as energy is sucked up dealing with dysfunction.
So, how can we walk in faith, proclaiming the Word of God with confidence in an atmosphere of such potential insecurity and danger? Paul tells us, “No, in all things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:37-39).
Paul knew the immensity of the powers that threatened, yet he never shrank from the battle. He knew that peace comes from walking with Christ, cross and all. He knew the depths of deliverance the gospel promises to everyone who will name the name of Jesus and claim his power in their lives.
I will sum up my sermon with a family experience. In the early 90’s one of my sisters was having tremendous problems with her teenage daughter. Debby (not her real name) was 15 at the time, doing poorly in school, and had a school counselor, a psychologist, a psychiatrist, and a case worker with children’s services. She would rather dabble with her Ouija board than do her homework. She lied, stole from my sister, and was basically out of control. Sometimes the neighbors called the police when the screaming and craziness got really bad.
My sister called me one day, distraught, exhausted, and seemed near to breaking down. Nothing was working with Debby, not the $120 per visit to the psychiatrist and the host of expensive drugs that were prescribed. Would I take Debby for awhile to give her relief? Hmmm… this would require a lifestyle change for me, a comfortable single businesswoman at that time who enjoyed a peaceful life. What to do…
Of course I had Debby come live with me. She was my goddaughter. We had to re-establish her contact with a social worker in my county who came to check out me and my home. I had to get her enrolled in school—no small feat because I had to do the legal work to become her guardian.
I could tell story after story of the dysfunction that took place and the battle that went on day after day. In only a month, I was exhausted. But I want to leave you with this story. Within a few days of Debby’s moving in with me (she had not yet been admitted to school), she called me at the office and asked me to come home. She was crying and clearly upset. I went home immediately and found her sitting at the dining room table trembling. She was afraid to tell me what was wrong because she didn’t think I would believe her. After all, when she had such thoughts, her mother told her to knock it off. Her psychiatrist prescribed yet another drug, and her counselor simply tried to sooth her.
You see, Debby would see a man with black hair, red eyes, in a business suit. He showed up in dark corners and on this particular day his eyes showed through the heat vent on the floor as she stepped out of the shower. I asked her what this man could do to her. She said, “He just keeps following me and scaring me so that I will kill myself.”
Through her tears, she asked me, “Aunt Eileen, am I possessed? Is he the devil?” I was glad that I had had experience dealing with spiritual phenomena to tell her that no, she was not possessed. I asked her if she believed in Jesus and she did. I clearly remember her baptism. “Then it is not possible for you as a child of God to be possessed. You can, however, be oppressed by evil that you have allowed into your life, or by the power of suggestion, like dabbling in paranormal activities.” I prayed with her and taught her how to deal with this phenomenon.
That night in the middle of the night there was a knock on my bedroom door and a tearful shaking Debby cried out, “Aunt Eileen, can I sleep in your room with you? I’m afraid. The man is back.” He would awaken her in nightmares every night. I held her in my arms and rocked her like a baby, praying over her. But the most important thing I did was to give her a tool to help herself. I told her that the name of Jesus has great power to protect her and deliver her from oppression, difficult temptations, and fears.
First we named what was bothering her. We called it a” spirit of fear.” Giving our dis-ease or disorder a name is the first step to dealing with it. Then we rebuked the spirit of fear audibly in the name of Jesus, telling the spirit that it had no power over her because she is protected by the blood of Jesus.
Debby did this for the next few days and nights. Then the nightmares stopped. The red-eyed man eventually disappeared as Debby claimed her birthright in Christ. She started to organize and decorate her bedroom. I got her a tutor at school and she tried a bit harder. She still lied to me, stole stupid things from me like candy or hair products, and was as difficult as any 15-year old teenager can be, but Debby eventually was no longer on any prescription drugs or seeing a psychiatrist, or having any more psychotic episodes.
There are other stories I can tell you of how calling on the name of Jesus has changed fearful situations and even saved my life more than once. But, I will never advise anyone to give up doctors or medications. All healing comes from God no matter how it is delivered, and sometimes that means medical intervention as well.
Friends, the name of Jesus can bring light into dark places, deliver us and protect us from temptations, fears, addictions, and oppression by the same power and love of God that raised Jesus from the dead. Calling on the name of Jesus has the power to chase evil and temptations from you. Stay close to him, believe in his power, call upon him! Claim his promises! Let him heal you and make you whole. Amen.
*Exegetical commentary from “Postscript,” Synthesis, Proper 7, Year C, 2019.