There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors, and hail a materialist or magician with the same delight.
The famous words from C S Lewis’ introduction to The Screwtape Letters, and words well worth bearing in mind as we read today’s Lectionary Gospel reading about Jesus and the man infested with a legion of demons. For those who get obsessed with demons, Lewis reminds us not to put them in the limelight; for those who say you can’t believe in them, the story reminds us that if we call Jesus ‘Lord’, then we cannot say he was wrong about this.
Either way, the important factor in considering this story is to see Jesus as the central character. This whole account revolves around Jesus. So I want us to reflect on this famous Gospel story by relating everyone and everything to Jesus.
Firstly, Jesus and the demons. Let’s tackle the most difficult part of the story first, but it is one that tells us a lot about how we may regard evil in the light of Christian faith. What the demons do to the man is characteristic of evil in general. In what ways?
The man is ‘of the city’ yet he lives ‘not … in a house but in the tombs’ (verse 27). At very least, this illustrates the social breakdown caused by evil. Sin and evil break up societies and families. Given that it was highly unusual for adults not to marry (Jesus was quite an exception), there may well be a fractured family as a result of the demonic activity. Think of the similar way in which drug abuse shatters families, and you have a comparison with what has happened here.
He wears ‘no clothes’ (verse 27) – again, he is an outcast from society. Such is the force of evil that his behaviour means he cannot fit in anymore. Moreover,
To stay overnight among tombs is a mark of madness in Jewish tradition.
Furthermore, this evil brought by the demons results in the man having unusual strength, such that normal human constraints cannot contain it:
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. (Verse 29)
Family and social breakdown; madness; and human inability to contain the strength of evil. No wonder this man was isolated. Imagine the fear in the city. The only way to protect people from him was to ensure he kept at a safe distance. It’s rather like the way we cry for dangerous criminals to be locked up for life, or we protest when proposals are made to house mentally ill people in the community. A naked man meets naked fear.
But Jesus is not afraid. Not one bit. Why is he not afraid of the damaging evil caused by the demons? Simple. He knows he carries divine authority. He has the right as Son of God to command the expulsion of evil spirits. Good and evil are not equal and opposite powers. God reigns, evil must ultimately submit.
He also knows that in his hands lie the ultimate defeat of evil in every form. Not that he will do so in the conventional form of aggressive, violent warfare, but rather by suffering and passivity. He will conquer the principalities and powers of evil by his death on the Cross, and by being raised from the dead.
What does this mean for us? It gives us confidence and faith in the presence of wickedness in any form. Even if it does not submit to Christ now, one day it will. We may even be part of conquering it, as we act in the name of Jesus – that is, with his authority. However, he may call us to conquer evil through our own suffering.
Secondly, let us consider Jesus and the man. As I’ve already said, such was the state of this man that ordinary society had ostracised him. So much is he at an arm’s distance that you wonder how he even obtains the basic necessities of life, such as food and drink. Perhaps he scavenges like an animal. Maybe he uses society’s fear of him to terrify people into giving him what he wants, rather like a bank robber with a gun. Either way, his contact with the rest of humanity is minimal. No-one can change him for the better, so people take what steps they can to protect themselves from him. They warn their children not to go near him. The local equivalent of the Daily Mail runs a campaign against him. Every action can be summed up in one word: fear.
But fear and impotence are not in Jesus’ repertoire. Love means he approaches the man and commands the demons to leave, whereas fear has made others retreat and put up barriers. He knows he has what the man needs in order to be healed and restored. He does not need to put the man in permanent quarantine. Rather, when he has exercised his divine authority, the local people come and find the man
sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. (Verse 35)
In the face of powerful evil, Jesus brings healing. The madness is gone. The man is sitting at Jesus’ feet – the posture of a disciple. And we see the discipleship in the man’s desire to ‘be with [Jesus]’ (verse 38), which Jesus redirects into another expression of discipleship:
“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. (Verse 39)
What do we learn from Jesus here? Surely that we have nothing to fear from evil and everything to gain for the kingdom of God if we face evil with the love of God and the authority of Jesus Christ. If we refuse to run away from evil in the way the world does, but instead remember that evil, even demonised people are still people who need the love of God in Christ, then situations and people can be transformed.
I am not suggesting that we all rush to become exorcists – most churches rightly put policies and restrictions around that, because there are too many loose cannons around who fancy themselves as spiritual superheroes and who cause great damage. However, every one of us at some time or another still comes face to face with manifestations of evil in one form or another. Those are the times to believe that Jesus has given us authority to act in his Name, and if we do so from a heart of Christian love, empowered by the Holy Spirit, then healing will come, and even new disciples for Christ.
More than that, when society is troubled by fear and reduced to reactions and policies based on fear, it’s time for Christians to be confident about the power of the Gospel. And by that I don’t just mean the message of forgiveness, I also mean what follows on from that, with changed lives. Jesus Christ is the world’s hope in the face of evil. Let’s not be shy or embarrassed about that.
Thirdly and finally, Jesus and the local people. What Jesus does here should be good news, shouldn’t it? But fearful people are confirmed in their fear, even when faced with the evidence of Jesus’ saving power. When the herdsmen see the man ‘sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind’, we read, ‘they were afraid’ (verse 35). When they give an eyewitness account of what they saw happen (verse 36), the local population comes to a consensus:
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. (Verse 37)
All they can see is that Jesus is the culprit in the destruction of their pig herd. His salvation of the man has had a detrimental economic effect upon them. And admittedly we find his willingness to let the demons enter the pigs difficult to understand. All we might guess is that Jesus acknowledges that the time for the final judgement against evil is not yet. But we are not the people suffering economic loss here. So no wonder they don’t want him around.
Yet maybe that is the choice with which Jesus faces them. To accept his ways will sometimes mean we are less well-off financially. Being his disciple involves sacrifice, especially for the well-being of others. You know I won’t have anything to do with the ‘Jesus wants you rich’ brigade, but there is a subtle variation that seduces many Christians. It’s more along the lines of ‘Jesus wants you comfortable’. We have similar lifestyle aspirations to people who have little interest in God and faith. Christianity becomes the ‘redemption and lift’ phenomenon that Wesley and others observed, where converts give up certain habits and practices, and the money saved leads to a higher standard of living – at least, in economic terms.
We know our nation is in for a bout of protracted hardship as we begin to reduce our massive national debt. We shall get a flavour of that this coming week with the Emergency Budget. I wish hardship on nobody, especially on the poorest and most vulnerable. But times of financial deprivation are occasions when Jesus may well ask us how serious we are about following him. Will we do that, even if we feel the pinch? Even if our Christian ethics prohibit some personal economic short-cuts that would alleviate the difficulties for us? Even if strictures for us meant benefits for others?
The thing is, we have incredibly good news in Jesus Christ to celebrate and to share. It gives us confidence of victory over evil. It makes new the most broken in society. But it comes with a challenge and a cost. Because as Jesus makes all things new, he will conflict with vested interests. It is then a gospel matter whether we send him away in fear or embrace him and pay the price.
Which will we do?
 John Nolland, Luke 1-9:20, p407.