Today’s Demon

Posted: June 17, 2019 in Uncategorized

‘Today’s Demon’

 Our text from Luke today is a story of an exorcism that Luke has taken from Mark (5:1-20).  In Luke’s gospel, this is the only incident where Jesus ministers outside of Jewish territory.  There is confusion, however, on account of the textual variations as to the exact name of the place: “the country of the Gerasenes” or “Gadarenes” or “Gergesenes.”  The common understanding is that it can be said to be “opposite Galilee” (v. 26), that is, on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee.

In the Synoptic gospels, Mathew Mark and Luke Jesus is repeatedly portrayed as engaging in exorcisms as a regular part of his ministry.  We today might have trouble with the notion of “demonic possession” but it was a standard feature of ancient belief.  Probably the closest modern analogue we have to such a phenomenon is severe mental and emotional illness.  In whatever way we understand it today, our text presents Jesus as restoring a tormented person to his right mind (v. 35). In this respect, exorcisms served the overall purpose of Jesus’ healing ministry.

The demon-possessed man is depicted as living outside the pale of civilized society: he wore no clothes and lived among the tombs (v. 27).  This means that the man suffering from demonic possession is also marginalized and in need of reintegration into ordinary society.  We are informed that the man is possessed of many demons.  Indeed, their name is “legion,” meaning “a multitude” or ‘great in number.”  Andrew King’s poem, ‘I Am Legion” gives us a personal picture of what this means for the individual.

I AM LEGION
I am the lost one trapped in depression;
I am the broken one trapped in my rage;
I am the hurting soul chained to addiction;
I am self-harmer abused at young age –

I am the many-name victim of madness,
my humanness naked, nowhere to hide;
drowning like flotsam in cold seas of sadness,
wracked by despair until bits of me die;

haunted by fear, or strange inner voices;
tortured by dark thoughts in pitiless tide . . .
Blame me? Shame me? And what other choices –
fear me? Ignore me and let my needs slide?

Gerasene brother, when you met the Christ
who banished the illness into the swine,
your healing came without judgment or price;
mercy itself helped bring rightness of mind.

But note still the fear of those who kept score,
finding you clothed, sitting calm and at peace.
Madness is feared, but is mercy feared more?
It’s Christ, not Legion, who’s asked there to leave.

The New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan has made a very provocative suggestion for how we are to interpret the motif of Jesus sending the demons into the herd of swine (vv. 32-33).  First, he finds it to be telling that the demons give their name as “legion” which is the name of a Roman military unit.  He also thinks it is noteworthy that pigs are considered “unclean” animals according to Jewish food laws.  He reminds us, moreover, that the broader political context of the New Testament is that Palestine (the Land of Israel) was under Roman political and military occupation at the time of Jesus.  Hence, Crossan asks whether we might not discern “a connection between colonial oppression and forms of mental illness easily interpreted as demonic possession?”  This is a very insightful way of considering things in this passage of scripture.  Crossan explains: “An occupied country has, as it were, a multiple-personality disorder.  One part of it must hate and despise the oppressor, but the other must envy and admire its superior power.  And…if body is to society as microcosm to macrocosm, certain individuals may experience exactly the same split within themselves.”  With respect to our specific text, then, Crossan writes: “An individual is, of course, being healed, but the symbolism is also hard to miss or ignore.  The demon is both one and many; is named Legion, that fact and sign of Roman power; is consigned to swine, that most impure of Judaism’s impure animals; and is cast into the sea, that dream of every Jewish resister.”  Crossan admits that he does not take this story to reflect an actual incident in the life of the historical Jesus; still, he does think that this story “openly characterizes Roman imperialism as demonic possession.”[  It’s hard not to be impressed with Crossan’s brilliance in seeing this connection in our text.  Accordingly, Jesus’ ministry, including his exorcisms, had a political dimension which we should not underestimate.

Whatever sense we make of the phenomenon that was interpreted by ancient people as demonic possession, the fact remains that many people, today as then, live under the domination of evil forces and are trapped by them.  Salvation for them thus requires liberation from evil.  In an earlier comment on another passage of scripture, I spoke of the prevalence of addiction in our society.  People under the power of an addiction feel that they have lost the freedom they once had to control their lives.  This experience of addiction can be likened to that of possession by an external demonic power.  We also speak today of “systemic evils” such as racism, sexism, heterosexism, etc.  These are structural or collective evils from which individuals suffer.  So, however we name the evil in our midst, it is part of the church’s mission to exorcise it from the lives of people, just as Jesus once did.

I want to play you a video now that I think alerts us to a demonic possession today. Not is the sense of creating an image of a devil or a particular identity of evil but in terms of that which we create for ourselves as system, culture, through unquestioned progress or what at many levels seems good for us but might have hidden implications that we can name as insidiously evil because they fool us into complacency and comfort. The video is an introduction to a day seminar that we do not have on video but the introduction I think alerts us to ask questions about why things like Brexit has been so fraught, Why Donald Trump got elected and why we seem to roll from conflict into conflict or that we opt for legalism and revenge rather than seek grace, forgiveness and peace.

Show Video                 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wy8aY_-JLBA&t=323s

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