Pity a Poor Demon

Fishermen on the Sea of Galilee

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.

His Right Mind

Mark 3:20-35

Lectionary Project—Part of an ongoing three year project of weekly posts related to the Sunday reading from the Revised Common Lectionary. A study in practical theology.

Jesus did not join a cult. It was much worse than that. He started one.

Christ Pantocrator - icon from St Catherine's Monastery, Sinai
Christ Pantocrator – icon from St Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai

Jesus subverted the cult that had grown around John the Baptist, his rogue cousin with the weird hair and the wilderness lifestyle. Jesus also grew a new following while John was still out in the wild — the advantages of better social marketing skills. Whatever the origin of the groupies and critics surrounding Jesus, word spread of strange goings-on until Mary came with her other children to perform an intervention.

Was Jesus in his right mind? His family had heard that he was acting crazy. Hanging out with tax collectors. Sinners. Even fishermen. Healing people. (What was he thinking?) He was sending members of his new cult out to proclaim the message — though at this early stage it is unclear just what that message was — and to cast out demons.

Casting out demons. Now there’s an interesting skill for a resume.

Critics claimed that Jesus was possessed by a demon, even by Satan himself. In Mark’s Gospel they also name Beelzebub, perhaps a version of the old Canaanite god Baal that had become identified with Satan. The concept of Satan had come a long way over the preceding century or two, after the writings that would become what Christians call the Old Testament were generally formed. What started as a minor character, a member of the court of heaven, became the personification of evil. Here’s something useful to think about: there is far more written about demons outside of scripture than within it. There is more of horror movies than theology in our notions of evil.

It is interesting that Jesus does not dismiss the idea of demons. He does not say that such things don’t happen, that the diseases and mental instabilities people attributed to evil spirits had other, less supernatural, causes. Instead, Jesus makes an argument as to why his critics are wrong — he can’t be possessed by evil spirits, since that would represent a divided house, evil working against itself since he, Jesus, is performing good works.

It could be that Jesus merely uses his critics’ own accusations to demonstrate that they are not thinking very clearly. Which is more convincing, to tell them they are wrong, or to show them that their bucket doesn’t hold water?

After all, if I find myself on the ground, all thought lost in the twisting darkness of an epileptic seizure, it no longer matters whether I understand the cause, demon or disease. It matters that someone else helps me.

Eye of the Wolf by Lauren Bell
Detail of Eye of the Wolf, by Lauren Bell. Acrylic. 2015.

There is also the famous passage about blasphemy against the Holy Spirit being unforgivable. The Christian trinitarian view being that the Spirit is part of and one with that who is God, let’s paraphrase the verse—blasphemy against God is unforgivable. So what do we do with that?

Some scholars question whether Jesus even said it. The Holy Spirit is so much a part of the post-crucifixion/resurrection viewpoint of Christianity that these verses sound like a later addition. Such an approach — cutting out the parts that are problematic or that don’t appeal — is difficult for many reasons, one of the strongest being this is the scripture that we have in a form that the community of faith preserved over centuries. If, like Thomas Jefferson so famously did, we snip out all of the parts we find difficult or disagreeable, the gospel we end up with will not be the one we received from the community of faith.

We might consider context — what’s going on when Jesus supposedly makes this pronouncement? For example, many a person will point to this verse and  tell you that suicide is an unforgivable sin. Isn’t it wonderful when genuine but unthinking believers blunder so judgmentally into the misery of other people? Do we hear of anyone committing suicide in this story? No. Other people will say that to die “unsaved” is blasphemy against the Spirit. Again I ask, is anyone dying in this story?

One thing is certainly going on in Mark’s Gospel, and it is the thing that Jesus is stridently rejecting. Some religious folk are pointing to something good, something of God — Jesus and his ability to heal people, to make them better — and calling it evil because it does not match their expectations or understanding. They are trying to prevent other people from experiencing what does not fit the framework of their religion, and Jesus condemns them for it.

Now that is worth thinking about.

“Your mother and brothers and sisters are outside calling for you,” the crowd tells him.

Another problem. There are plenty of people who go to great lengths to argue that these brothers and sisters were actually cousins, the idea being that while God could have become human in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, it is unthinkable that Mary (and Joseph) had other children. Let’s just go with what it says — Jesus is in his home, surrounded by an ambivalent crowd of followers and critics, when Mary and his siblings show up to intervene.

Jesus looks at the crowd and tells them that all who follow God are his brothers and sisters and mother. There’s no record of how that goes over with Mary.

Sometimes we accept the family we are given, and sometimes we choose our own. The two groups may turn out to include some of the same people, overlapping circles. Mary stood outside the home of Jesus, outside the circle of new believers and onlookers, just as she would later stand on that hill when her son was crucified. She was still in that small circle when most of the others had run away.

The Copernican Universe, via NASA.gov
The Copernican Universe, via NASA.gov

It is likely that our understanding of God, the universe, one another and life around us is terribly flawed and desperately limited. Perhaps one day science will find other life forms we had not previously understood, and we will have to shift our concepts of angels and demons, just as physicists changed our understanding of “let there be light” with a bang.

One day we may consider that being right was never so important as being kind, or true, or faithful. Doing good is better than being right. Love is more powerful than judgment.

Maybe that is the unforgivable blasphemy against God — clinging to our judgment in spite of our ignorance, choosing our notions of what is right over what is good. Our hamartia, our fatal flaw, is that we turn our gaze so far inward, we focus so closely upon ourselves, that we fail to recognize our greatest faults and our greatest needs. Perhaps Jesus does not mean that God does not forgive us. Perhaps he means that when we draw our circle so tightly that our world contains only ourselves, there is no room for our brothers and sisters. When we cut ourselves off, there is no one left to absolve us.

We Do Not See

Fourth Sunday After the Epiphany: Mark 1:21-28

Lectionary Project

We Do Not See

Mark wrote that Jesus and his new followers went to Capernaum. It makes sense—Capernaum is where Jesus lived. That’s part of the back story here, part of what this Gospel does not tell us outright, part of what we do not see.

Mark writes that Jesus walks into the synagogue and begins to teach. At first, it sounds like he just shows up for the first time, but it isn’t his first day there. These people, including the leaders of the synagogue, already know Jesus—Mark tells us at the beginning of the next chapter that Capernaum is where Jesus is at home.

This time, though, there is something new. Jesus has a following, a set of disciples, although they don’t sound very impressive. And this time, straightaway, there is a challenge—a man with an “unclean spirit” barges in and harangues Jesus, presumably speaking its strange words in the voice of this wretched man. When Jesus tells the spirit to leave the man, it does, the people watching are amazed.

That makes twice in the same passage that the audience is amazed or astounded: first, with the authority that Jesus displays in teaching, and second with his power in casting out a demonic spirit.

We could delve into trying to understand this demon in other ways that are more acceptable to modern thought, such as by recasting the man’s condition as an illness, but that would do violence to the story as it is told. Mark’s story is one of opposites and one of anticipation.

GrassesOpposites, then. Jesus is accepted by the religious leaders and worshipers in the synagogue. At the same time, he is challenged by a voice speaking for demonic powers, who recognize him and fear his presence. The irony is that in the end it is not demons who put Jesus to death—it is the religious people.

Anticipation. When Jesus casts out the unclean spirit, it cries out with a loud voice as it leaves the man. Mark describes the death of Jesus in the same way in verse 37 of chapter 15.

The power that challenged Jesus in the beginning was not the one that killed him, or maybe it was. Maybe it was hard to recognize the same intent in such apparently different, plainly decent, people. There are some real life lessons there. Expect challenges, for one, particularly just when things start going well, and sometimes from unforeseen places.

Another is that true power does not come from dogma—Jesus did not teach like the scribes. He didn’t tell them the rules. He showed them the truth, and truth is never found in rules but in people. Rules can be written down. Facts are found in laboratories. Truth, like power, is found in the heart.

We might think about the anticipation written into Mark’s Gospel, this early echo of the death of Jesus captured in the casting out of a demon. The demon is driven, wrenched out of a man with a loud cry of pain and rage. Jesus breathes out his life with a loud cry, but of what? And though Jesus journeyed toward his own crucifixion just as surely as that man walked into the synagogue, was there a difference in how they left this life? Does it matter that Jesus knowingly walked toward his end, while the man was driven by powers he did not understand?

There are echoes in our lives as well, moments when we are reminded of the BrownGrassesbrevity of this life, when we pause in anticipation of our own end. That is good, to be reminded, to remember. Otherwise we are like those ancient scribes, scratching out the details of our lives to distract us from living, to distract us from dying. There is power in being reminded of death. We do not cherish things we believe we cannot lose, do we? If we believe that we will see days without end, will we ever pause to watch a child play or marvel at a star we have not seen?

There’s a watch you can buy that counts down the seconds left in your life. Really. It is based on actuarial tables, general forecasts of life expectancy, something like that. You can find it here, if you’re interested: mytikker.com (I have no commercial interest—the link is only for the curious. And no, I don’t intend to buy one either.) The idea is that being reminded of the brevity of life might help one appreciate living.

Jesus and the demon-possessed man are telling us something about how to live. The man, screaming even as he is being freed, tells us that there are things we need to let go in order to live—and the process might be painful.

Control is not power. Rules are not truth. Life is not without pain, but it is worth the pain to live.