20th September, 16th Sunday after Trinity, evening
Revd Kate Tuckett
So we’ve just heard this intensely weird story of Jesus casting a host of demons out of two individuals and into a herd of pigs – pigs who then throw themselves over a cliff and drown in a lake. The story appears in Matthew, Mark and Luke, and in each one comes after the calming of the storm. It’s a sad story. In Matthew’s gospel, there are two demon-possessed men, in the others there are one, but the different gospel accounts tell us of someone with clear mental health issues, not in their right mind, wandering around naked, homeless, and living by the tombs.
Now I really don’t know what to do when it comes to talking about demons in the Bible and there is much about this story that makes me feel deeply uncomfortable. Anyone presenting the symptoms of the Gadarene demoniacs would, we hope, be referred pretty quickly on to the nearest psychiatric hospital and quite possibly be rapidly introduced to a treatment plan for schizophrenia. It would be very foolish to do others, or to discount the huge, God-given progress that has been made in our understanding and treatment of mental illness since biblical times.
I get even more uncomfortable when the demons talk --- and in the other gospels have names, because when we objectify demons in this way and think of them as evil spirits speak of demon possession we are using very loaded language. Much abuse has been done in the name of exorcising those with demons. But I don’t think this is a story about the details of an exorcism. Rather, it speaks of the promise of God that the forces in all of our lives that diminish us, that make us less than what we are created to be, do not need to have the last word. We may not call these demons. But we all have addictions and compulsions and patterns of behaviour in our lives that get hold of us, make us do things we don’t want to, or make us think that we love things or substances or people that are destructive for us. They are not of God, and they take us over.
What’s interesting is that the demons are scared of Jesus. When the demon-possessed men meet Jesus at the boat, the demons are scared and it is them and not the men who speak up saying ‘What have you to do with us, Son of God? Have you come torment us?’ And then they beg him not to destroy them but to cast them into the herd of swine. This comes directly after the story of the disciples on the boat who doubt his faith and authority; those who seem to know most reliably who Jesus is are not the religious authorities or his friends, they are the demons. The demons always recognise his authority, and they are afraid.
Our demons too may well recognise Jesus too out of the boat and they may be afraid of him. We’ve all probably known the little voice in our heads that tells us that the things that keep us and our lives healthy are a waste of time and energy. That the people who remind us how loved and how precious we are aren’t very exciting. That we’re not worthy to be called children of God, so we might as well isolate ourselves from those who would tell us otherwise. They want to undermine our confidence they want us to believe that we’re not good enough, and they are scared of finding themselves in a lake, and us fully clothed and fully at peace with who we are.
The description of the demon-possessed men in the story is a description of people who were totally isolated – who were out of control and alone and in pain. And if being out of control and alone and in pain was how the demon showed itself in these men’s lives, then it makes sense that they feared Jesus. Because in the healing texts, he doesn’t just cure people’s diseases and cast out their demons, but he restores them to community. He makes whole. In the other gospel accounts, he calls the man healed to stay with his people and speak of what God has done.
There’s a lot of fear in this story. First the disciples are afraid of the storm, then the demon-possessed men are afraid, then the demons are afraid of being sent into the abyss, and then, most interestingly, the people are afraid. And in the centre of this is Jesus who has shown himself as one who will free us, who will free these men and to free us all from the obstacles that stand in the way of us living abundant, productive, fulfilling lives in community. But as these men, who have been haunting the cemetery for years, ‘so fierce that no one could pass that way’, are now clothed and in their right minds, the people are afraid. They are scared of Jesus because he is restoring these men to health.
And if we were all restored to health as individuals and as a society and as a nation, things could be pretty frightening. Those who we like to dismiss from polite society, who aren’t like us, might be fully integrated. Refugees might be welcomed with open arms. People might leave work earlier to spend more time with those they love. Our own personal and national security might be diminished for the wellbeing of people we have never met and who we may or may not think are deserving.
The crowd didn’t want any part of Jesus’ healing. They’d rather have had frightening naked men running around in chains shouting at the top of their lungs than clothed, sane individuals committed to following the way of Jesus. Things may just begin to change when Jesus meets us and our heart, soul and mind are freed.
Fear is such a powerful driver in most of our lives. We talked about this at God in the Pub a few months ago, and I shared then that most of the people I don’t like are people I am in some way afraid of. Fear holds such control over us because it is hardly ever recognised as such. It is so often thought of as prudent concern, common sense, deserved anger, a conscientious work ethic. And in this way, our demons can get control over us, since we all seek a positive self-image, and no one wants to think of themselves as paranoid, cowardly or slightly fearful. These do not fit into our successful self-image.
Jesus’ healing ministry may unsettle us when it takes the form of exorcisms. But it often has to do with forcing the demons to name themselves correctly, to show themselves for what they are. Isaiah instructs the telling of those in darkness to ‘show yourself’ and the same may be said for confronting our own demons in the work of spiritual and personal growth. Our own encounters with Jesus may well be resisted by attacks of anxiety, excuses, rationalisations and questions. We too need to learn our own patterns and the exact shape of our fear. We cannot exorcise our demons until we know their name, until they show themselves, until they are pulled out of their hiding places of our lives and are looked at consciously and non-defensively.
There is so much that is fearful and chaotic in the world, and in the church, and in our society, and in our homes, and in ourselves. There are storms and demons all around us. And into these places Jesus bring peace and reconciliation and restoration to community if we are prepared to name them. And however strange it may seem to be talking about demons, whether they are addictions or evil spirits, I don’t think it really matters. Because the bottom line is that they are not what Jesus wants for us, since every time he encountered them he told them to get lost. And the authority to do just this --- to face what tells us lies about ourselves and our own potential, to name what keeps us bound, to face what makes us act in ways that are undignified and out of control, isolated and hurting – has been given to us too in our baptisms.
Any who have been baptised in Christ have been clothed in Christ. We are clothed with the one who the demons fear and who casts out all fear. And if you have not been baptised, and if you are dipping your toe into the water of faith, by opening yourself to the possibility of Christ’s life and love and compassion, you will take on some of the love and the grace which is always and freely offered to us. So tell those demons to get lost. You are bigger than they are. And you are worth it. Thanks be to God.
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