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The Bible can be a very difficult book. It was written a long time ago, and it was written about people very much different from us. Their knowledge of the world was significantly different from ours.
Things which we take for granted--like electricity--was unknown to them. They held values that I would hope we would all find repugnant, like racism and slavery and like sexism and treating women like property.
So what, then, do we do with Bible stories about demon possession? We donít see a lot of reference to demon possession in the daily newspapers, or hear about it on radio or television.
And, we may ask, IS there such a thing? WAS there ever such a thing?
In the New Revised Standard Version, the word "demon" can be found 28 times, and the word "demons" can be found 52 times. However, in the Hebrew Scriptures the word "demons" can be found only twice, and the word "demon" not at all.
Even Jesus is accused of being possessed. In the forty-eighth verse of the eighth chapter of the gospel according to John, "The Jews answered him, "Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?"
When Jesus commissioned his twelve disciples in the tenth chapter of the gospel according to Matthew, among the things he told them to do were "cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons."
Maybe I should apologize. In the past seventeen years, I have done none of those things.
And in the tenth chapter of the gospel according to Luke, Jesus appointed seventy others to ministry. In the seventeenth verse, "The seventy returned with joy, saying, "Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!"
According to scripture, Jesus DID cast out demons. So even though demons may not be part of our language today, we still need to acknowledge that they WERE a part of the stories in scripture, and we need to make some sense of that.
In the twenty-sixth and twenty-seventh verses of the gospel according to Luke, we read "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."
We donít know whether Jesus made this trip for the purpose of exorcising demons, but he may have.
Now, notice a couple of things about this fellow who meets Jesus as soon as Jesus steps out of the boat.
First of all, he is possessed by demons--plural--rather than by a singular demon. Maybe this is to make the task of exorcism more demanding.
Second, the man is naked. Although their clothing was much simpler than is ours today, to be in a state of total undress was still a bit strange, and the mark of a deranged person.
But third, he lived in the tombs. For the Jews the tombs were a source of uncleanness; so to them, one who lived in the tombs was unclean and qualified for demon possession.
"When [the man who had demons] saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, "What have you do 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.)"
The first question that comes to my mind here is "Who is talking--the man or the demons that possess him?" (And notice that the plural demons become a singular demon in this passage.)
If Jesus is addressed as "Son of the Most High God" what does that mean? Is this an objective label, or a label of reverence, or a label of fear?
Notice that the demon or demons is or are referred to as the "unclean spirit." How could Jesus be tormenting the man or the spirit by commanding a separation of the two?
"Jesus then asked him, "What is your name?" He said, "Legion"; for many demons had entered him."
Again, we might ask, Who is talking here, the man or the demons?
But letís pull this out of the first century and drop it into the twenty-first century. When we pray, do we not frequently feel that we are overwhelmed with problems? We may not use the label "legion," but we know that we are afflicted by numerous concerns.
We may not think in terms of "unclean spirits," but donít we wish that God could just "clean house" for us, make everything right again?
We may not think of ourselves as being possessed by demons, but donít we wish that Jesus could cast away our problems?
Have you ever had the experience, or do you know of others who have had the experience, of a "load being lifted off your shoulders." Or, "the weight of the world being lifted off your shoulders."
If you have had that experience, you may know what it is like to have demons cast out.
But back to the story: "[The demons] begged [Jesus] not to order them to go back into the abyss."
In the world of the New Testament, the abyss was the place where disobedient spirits were imprisoned. But what is the meaning of the demons negotiating with Jesus? Isnít this begging the question?
It would appear that the demons are impotent in the presence of Jesus. There is no question that they will be cast out; the only question is: where will they go? So, apparently, they want to be free to play and infest whomever else they may find.
But why would they expect Jesus to listen to them? They have addressed him as "Son of the Most High God." Why should he pay attention to demons?
"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."
Now, a couple of points need to be made here. First, it would appear that the devil can negotiate with God. I have a problem with that. But it would appear that Jesus, the Son of God, gave the demons permission to go where they asked. I have no problem with an understanding of the flexibility of God. In fact, I believe in a far less arbitrary God than most people do.
But I DO have a problem with Godís caving in to evil. And what are the demons if not evil? Is there anything GOOD we can say about them?
Well, there is a resolution to this mess. "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."
Now, we twenty-first century Christians may think, So what? But the first-century Jews had a whole different take on this matter. For them, swine--or pigs--were unclean and abhorrent. And for the Jews an unclean animal was like an unclean spirit. Which is to say that they would have applauded swine being possessed by demons. For the first-century Jews, that was politically correct.
And by the way, they would not have had any problem with the demon possession of Gentiles or anyone non-Jewish, because the Jews considered any non-Jew to be unclean.
There is even scholarly suspicion that Jesus, who was a Jew, had words put in his mouth by the author of the gospel according to Matthew, a book writtent for a Jewish audience, when in commissioning the twelve he is quoted as saying,
"Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans...."
Why would he say this? Because Jews considered Gentiles and Samaritans unclean.
"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."
Well, somebody lost a herd of pigs. Shouldnít we be concerned for a famerís loss? Yes, but that farmer was obviously not a Jew, so the Jews hearing this story would not care. The pigs were unclean and deserved to be drowned.
"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."
This man, who had previously broken chains and shackles is sitting at the feet of Jesus. This man who had previously worn no clothes is now clothed. This man, whose life had previously been out of control, is now in his right mind. Well, at least he seems acceptable to so-called polite society.
So what are they AFRAID of? Before, I am sure that they were afraid of demons and of those possessed by demons. So what are they afraid of NOW? I suspect that they are afraid of what they do not understand. They did not understand demon possession.
And now, they donít understand the power of one who can exorcise demons. Damned if you do, and damned if you donít.
"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."
Now, notice how this is phrased: "the one who had been possessed...had been healed." How can we possibly take issue with healing? Can there be anything more wonderful than to be healed, to be made whole, physically and/or spiritually?
But the Gerasenes were seized with great fear. We fear what we do not understand. Personally, I would go a step further on that. Not only do we fear what we do not understand, but we HATE what we do not understand.
We want it to go away and leave us alone. And that is what Jesus did. He got into the boat and returned.
So, what WAS this demon possession? Just as the Gerasenes did not understand Jesusí healing, so they likely did not understand the nature of demon possession. But the point, I think, is that our lives can often feel out of control. And when that happens, we may feel like evil demons have taken over.
A few years ago I watched a movie about how drug addiction can totally destroy lives. In fact, the movie is so unsettling that one can feel sick at oneís stomach watching it. Can demons be any worse?
At the beginning I noted that we donít read much about demon possession in newspapers, magazines, or books, or hear much about it on radio or television. But that is only because the language has changed. The demons are still with us. EVIL is still with us.
"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."
I think those final two verses carry a wonderful message. The healed man wants to follow Jesus as one of his immediate disciples, and I am sure that there would have been much he could have learned from Jesus.
But instead, Jesus gives him the best advice any of us could ever get: "Return to your home." We frequently want to set the world on fire.
But the best way we can do that is to stay right where we are and, as Jesus said, "declare how much God has done for you."
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