The Preacher’s Study
5th Sunday after Pentecost, 2016
John W.B. Hill
1 Kings 19.1-4, (5-7), 8-15a
Psalm 42 & 43;
The story of the Gerasene demoniac is one of the richest and most revealing exorcism stories of the gospel; it also makes high demands upon our symbolic imagination. But first we must attend to the details.
This story is not just about one sick individual; it’s about “a man of the city” and the sick relationship between him and his fellow-citizens, which Jesus seeks to heal. Nor is the relationship the consequence of one climactic breakup; “many times [the demon] had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound ... but he would break the bonds and be driven into the wilds.” We get a picture of a cyclical pattern within an ambivalent relationship: he causes alarms among the citizens, but they cannot bring themselves to be rid of him. As the conclusion of the story makes clear, they consider his healing a threat; they need him to be sick — which may be why they keep trying to chain him (sort of), knowing that he will escape (sort of). It’s a relation of co-dependency.
In a dysfunctional society, people develop adaptive behaviour for survival. If they are not accepted for who they are, they may assume a false-self role. In the case of someone with deviant behaviour, that role may be ‘the scapegoat,’ acting out the dysfunction of the society, and then being accused of causing society’s problems (what we call ‘demonizing’). The scapegoat may ultimately come to accept the accusations (i.e., may become ‘demon-possessed’). If so, he absolves everyone else of society’s problem.
Jesus challenges every such manifestation of the ‘Kingdom of the Accuser,’ for he is the very presence of the ‘Kingdom of God.’ Those enmeshed in Satan’s Kingdom cannot see what is going on, but the ‘demon’ (the personification of the dysfunctionality) knows instinctively that its power is threatened by Jesus’ arrival. It even whines about being persecuted: “I beg you, do not torment me.”
The extreme form of scapegoating culminates in killing the accused — by a lynch mob or, in ancient culture, by stoning or pushing off the edge of a cliff. (Just challenging the social system can trigger this kind of scapegoating: see, for example, Luke 4: 16 - 30.)
The text of this story shows signs of a complex development. The pigs charging over the edge into the sea may be a later folk embellishment; nevertheless, this clearly serves the purpose of the tale, for the ‘demons’ are the accusations he has endured (and internalised). Their name is ‘legion,’ for he is truly ‘enemy occupied territory.’ If he fails to cooperate with their need for someone to blame, he too may be pushed off a cliff.
Thus the emotional climax of the story is seeing his demons go over the cliff themselves. More importantly, the evangelical climax is seeing the man “sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind.” He is a model of true conversion; he has been “clothed with Christ” (as today’s second reading puts it) and then sent on a mission of reconciliation.
The prophet Elijah is another model of conversion. Today’s first (semicontinuous) reading continues the story we heard some weeks ago, the sacrificial contest on Mount Carmel. We expect to hear that Elijah is basking in that victory; instead he insists it was a failure: “the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword.” The clue is the symmetry: Elijah had slaughtered prophets too — the prophets of Baal. Violence cannot achieve God’s purposes. Even a triumphant sacrifice is still violence, justifying a violent social order — unless, like the cross of Christ, it awakens us to the futility of violence. “The Lord was not in the wind [or] the earthquake [or] the fire.” But entering the “sheer silence,” one may hear his voice and rediscover one’s calling.
6th century mosaic from Church of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna