Moving Toward the Afflicted in the Power & Love of Jesus
by Mike Fox
LECTIONARY FOR SUNDAY, JUNE 23RD | LUKE 8:26-39
In Western society the scientific method has been the standard for separating fact from fiction, truth from lie since the 1500s. For the last 500 years, anything that can’t be demonstrated in a controlled, repeatable experiment must not be true. Religion, faith, and belief in an unseen, spiritual world has been under assault. It is assumed that if we can’t prove that God exists then He must not exist and by extension demons, angels, and other unseen forces also don’t exist.
The expression, “He/she is fighting demons” comes from a traditional belief in demonic possession, where a person is possessed by demons that torment them, cause illness, and force bad behavior. Because nobody has “proven” that demons actual exist, many people don’t believe in demonic possession anymore, so the expression has come to mean that a person is fighting against something powerful that is tormenting him/her and trying to control him/her. This force they struggle against could be an addiction, a mental illness, a physical illness, a troubled relationship, peer pressure, or even advertising that is tempting them to do or buy something they don’t want and can’t afford.
People who are struggling, fighting inner demons, often make us uncomfortable – their speech and/or behavior are not quite normal. Our first instinct is to label them as ‘other’ which gives us an excuse to avoid them. This, of course, leaves people to struggle alone. All of this brings us to this week’s Gospel lesson (Luke 8:26-39).
Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me”— for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss. Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned. When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.
As we can see from this account, people have been struggling with forces bigger than themselves for a long time. We can also see that the subsequent prejudice, poor treatment, and isolation from society leads only to more suffering and never to healing. But, we also see that healing can be as simple as having someone to hold their hand, to lend a listening ear, or to speak an encouraging word.
Let’s look at this passage a little more closely.
Jesus has just sailed from Galilee to Gerasene. When He gets out of the boat, He is confronted by a man fighting his own demons. Luke 8:27, 29b NRSV: “As Jesus stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs…he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.”
The first thing we see is that this man had anti-social behaviour – he wore no clothes, lived in a cemetery, and was violent. We also see the community’s response – he was kept under guard and was bound with chains. (Elsewhere, Jeremy asks if this man was chained 1) to keep him away from the rest of the community, or 2) to keep him from running away from supportive community and isolating himself as some addicts are prone to do. Read here.)
Continuing in Luke 8:29a we read, “Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him).” This seems to say that the man had fought his demons, pushed them away for a while, but they kept coming back. This is true of many of our biggest struggles – cancer can be in remission and then come back stronger than before; depression can disappear for a while and then reappear the first time something upsetting happens; we can dig ourselves out of debt only to go back into debt again because we haven’t changed our spending habits.
Studies say that, on average, it takes 30, yes you read that right, 30 tries before a smoker is finally able to quit smoking! Everyone who is following a 12-step program – Alcoholics Anonymous, Celebrate Recovery, etc. – knows that recovery is a lifelong journey and is much easier when they have the support of others.
Going back to the Gospel lesson…when the man is able to talk, he tells Jesus that he has many struggles, he is fighting many demons. Luke 8:30 NRSV. Jesus then asked him, “What is your name [what are you fighting]?” The man said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. People who are really struggling, rarely struggle with just one thing. For example, treatment for cancer weakens our immune system which can then lead to other diseases; or people who suffer from depression often find it difficult to keep a job which can lead to money problems, hunger, and homelessness.
The community hears what Jesus has done. Luke 8:37 NRSV: Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned.
People fear the things they don’t understand. The community asks Jesus to leave. Their response says, “Things were just fine before you got here. Yes, there was one man who was suffering, but everything else was normal. Now we have a man, who was sick, but now is healthy; we have a bunch of farmers who no longer have their livelihood; we have things we don’t understand! What are we suppose to do? Please, just go away and maybe things will return to the way they were.”
I think the lessons here are…
- When viewed through our earthly eyes, people may appear to be beyond hope, but things look differently when seen through Jesus’s eyes.
- Whenever Jesus gets involved, the old normal goes away and a new normal is established.
- As Christ’s representatives, we have a role to play. It is NOT good enough to say, “I’m uncomfortable and afraid. I’m not going to get involved.” We need to love the ‘other’ with more than words. We need to love with our actions.