Pity a Poor Demon

Fifth Sunday after Pentecost | Luke 8:26-39

They got into a boat and rode across the great lake called Gennesaret or Tiberias, the Sea of Galilee. As soon as Jesus stepped on the shore, a crazy man ran out to meet him, threw himself on the ground and started screaming for mercy.

It’s not something you see every day.

Jesus casts out demons. Stained glass, Strasbourg Cathedral, 13th century.
Jesus casts out demons. Stained glass, Strasbourg Cathedral, 13th century.

Luke tells us that the man was possessed by so many demons that they identified themselves as “Legion” — thousands, a multitude, an army. Today we tend to view tales of demon possession as superstitious stories used to explain medical maladies, or as the inventions of an ignorant people, or simply as stories we tell to scare ourselves.

We love to be frightened, it seems. Stephen King, H P Lovecraft, and many others have proven it, much to the delight of their readers. We watch horror films, revel in halloween costumes, and say “boo” to one another for the same reasons. We like the stories, and we like the chilling thrill. It is just that we do not want the demons to be real, though we are secretly afraid that they are.

We hear things that go bump in the night. We see something behind the eyes of a neighbor, just for a moment, that frightens us. We learn of the horrific things people sometimes do to one another—the ovens of Auschwitz, piles of skulls in the killing fields of Cambodia, a man with a gun in Sandy Hook or Orlando—and we realize we have gone past the bleeding edge of psychology. Beyond here there be demons, something inhuman, waiting to engulf us in waking nightmares.

The Temptation of St Anthony. Engraving, Martin Schongauer, c.1480. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
The Temptation of St Anthony. Engraving, Martin Schongauer, c.1480. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

It is interesting what we accept and what we dismiss. We will accept that there are probably more species of insect in the world than we will ever discover. We listen as scientists play for us an audio conversion of the vibrations of gravitational waves coming from the collision of black holes deep in space, and while the sound is brief and unimpressive, we are astonished by the discovery. (You can listen here on NPR.)

But demons, we ask? A life form capable of acting as a sentient, controlling parasite within a human being? Rubbish.

One might point out that every human culture on earth appears to have developed a belief in the existence of demons, but Carl Jung gave us a plausible explanation, didn’t he? Demons are merely archetypes of the collective unconscious, aren’t they? After all, the psychological explanation agrees with Jesus’ teaching that evil comes from within our own hearts.

Whatever we think about demons, the man in the story fell to the ground screaming for Jesus to have mercy on him. That is how the gospels (Mark and Matthew have versions of the same encounter) tell it. We may not accept the story at face value as the original first century audience likely did, but we still have the same narrative.

The demons begged to be sent into a heard of pigs rather than into the abyss—apparently just what it sounds like, either the cessation of being or incessant torture. Jesus agreed and sent these demons to possess the pigs, who promptly stampeded into the lake and drowned. That may be the element that disturbs us the most—all those pigs plunging to their death. We perceive the demons as evil, but not the pigs. Even though pigs are ritually unclean to observant Jews, the point is moot—nobody claims that this man or the pig herder were Jewish, and the pigs are still pigs, right? Allowing the pigs to be killed and the pig farmer to lose his herd, all for the sake of showing mercy to demons, bothers us.

Never mind whether we believe in the existence of these demons. For the moment, let’s just go with it.

The other thing that makes us uneasy is not our qualms about the pigs. It’s summed up in a Rolling Stones song—we have no sympathy for the devil.

Jesus does. While you may explain away this story, and the floating porcine carcasses, as leading to the psychological catharsis of an insane man, the dead pigs being a symbol of the end of his affliction, that is not the way the story is told. We are told that Jesus had mercy on a legion of demons.

By the way, arguments that Jesus cleverly tricked the demons to destroy them don’t hold up. For one thing, nothing here says a demon dies when the creature it possesses dies. For another thing, such a motivation is simply not part of the story. Elsewhere in the gospels (Luke 11:24, Matthew 12:43) we read that exorcised demons wander deserted places looking for another host, an interesting and frightening thought, though this also could be explained in purely psychological terms—who hasn’t heard of a relapse being worse than the original affliction?

Meanwhile, back to the story we have.

tote_beige_vertical_printfileIf Jesus had compassion for demons, even placing their well being above that of the lives of animals and above the economic well being of a pig farmer, what does it mean? Simple. As Jesus did, so must his followers do.

We were afraid that was coming, weren’t we? It is why we look askance at this story of demon possession. Whether we consider the possibility of possession literally or as a way of understanding the mind, we fear it may happen to us or to our loved ones. We fear it has already happened to us, for which of us has no demons? At the same time and despite our own personal demons, we do not want to show mercy and compassion toward the demons around us. It disturbs our cultivated sense of right and wrong, good vs evil.

We like a clear line dividing us from the bad guys. Evil is there, on the other side of a line we draw in our minds. Being on our side of the line reassures us that we are right.

We do a fine job job of drawing lines these days. We draw them everywhere—in society, in elections, in religious tolerance or intolerance. We push all of those people, the ones not like us, over to the other side. Not satisfied with disagreeing, and not wanting to join in dialogue, we demonize people. We demonize plenty of people, because demonizing them makes it easy to judge them (and to approve of ourselves.)

Jesus pitied the poor demons. He listened to them and had mercy on them, even though they were making a man’s life a living hell.

Jesus did that for a multitude of demons, and for the man they were tormenting. We can do it for the people around us, even when they are wrong, even when they are different, even when it costs us something, even when they are strangers.

One of the most pervasive moral and ethical imperatives of scripture is expressed in how we treat the stranger, the other, the foreigner.

And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.

That is from Deuteronomy 10:9. The idea is so foundational that it is repeated over and over, in Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy, echoed throughout the prophets. It is an idea held sacred by all three faiths of the People of the Book—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It is central to the teaching of Jesus—love your neighbor as yourself.

There are plenty of demons within us, and plenty of demons tormenting our neighbors. We don’t need to make more.

Have mercy. Show compassion. That is how the kingdom of God comes to pass.

Fishermen on the Sea of Galilee
Fishermen on the Sea of Galilee. c.1900. Anonymous. Library of Congress.