The Exorcist. Have you ever watched this classic horror movie or heard about it? I think, most of you at least know what it is about. It’s about the demonic possession of a 12-year-old girl and her mother’s attempt to rescue her through an exorcism. When it was released in 1973, it was so sensational that people lined up at theaters enduring cold winter weather. And you know what, people literally got sick watching the movie. Many people felt nauseous and vomited. There were reports of heart attacks and miscarriages, believe or not. And a psychiatric journal even coined the term “cinematic neurosis” to describe these symptoms. But if you would watch the movie now, I’m sure you wouldn’t be scared that much. Some of you may just scoff at it and say, “Oh…come on.” It’s because all those 70s’ visual effects using puppets and make-ups look poor and unrealistic. It’s not even close to hyper-realistic computer graphics these days.
As such, today’s Gospel reading may sound like another unrealistic story of exorcism to us. It’s not even from the 70s. It’s an ancient story… about the demonic possession of a man in Gerasenes and the exorcism Jesus conducted. The story goes like this. It was near the Sea of Galilee, away from a town. A man lives in the place of the dead and wanders around the wilds wearing no clothes. He is a man possessed by not just one evil spirit but many demons. He probably has multiple personalities and different voices. This man is a threat to the townspeople. So they try many things to capture him and keep him bound with chains and shackles. But driven by strong demons, this man always breaks the bonds, goes back into the wilds, and haunts the town every night. But to him, Jesus approaches one day. This group of demons in his body ask Jesus not to order them to go back into the abyss. So Jesus permits them to enter the herd of swine. And the herd rushes down the steep bank into the lake and gets drowned.
How does the story sound? Sounds like a supernatural horror movie, like The Exorcist? Yes, it might. But what should we do with this story now? Can we just dismiss this story altogether as an unrealistic story? Can we just scoff at it and say, “Oh…come on?” I guess, we can’t. Let me tell you, there is a big difference between a horror movie and this story in the Gospel, because it’s a story in “the Gospel,” in “the Bible,” my friends! We Christians don’t take the story in the Gospel as a mere ancient fiction, but as the living word of God. We believe, it has power to change our lives and save our souls. Different from watching a movie, whenever we read the Scripture, we think about its meaning to us, about what God wants us to hear from the story. But then, what on earth does this movie-like exorcism story of the demon-possessed man in Gerasenes have to do with us? How can it be the good news for the contemporary people like us? And finally, how can it be “our” story, the story of God’s people?
Let us closely look at the story. I know, we may not see such dramatic case like the man in Gerasenes around us. But what about the evil that torments him? Can you confidently say that the power of the evil and its demonic forces are unreal too? Whatever language we use to describe this power and whichever way we define it in a theological, medical, psychological, or sociological way, what we know for sure is that this force harms and destroys the man. It “strips him of agency, sanity, dignity, and community. It keeps him in isolation [in the margins of his society]. It renders him anonymous. It encourages him to mutilate his own body. It deadens his soul and divides his mind. In short, it deprives him of self-control, and propels him towards self-destruction.”
Does any of these sound familiar? Still unfamiliar to you? Do you remember the horrible bombings that happened in Sri Lanka last April? Think about those suicide bombers and terrorists who planned the bombings, who attacked three churches and other locations on Easter Sunday morning and killed 258 people. What about the mass-shootings? In the US, in this year only, so far we have 148 mass shootings reported. And as a consequence, 162 people were killed and 560 injured. Aren’t these too extreme cases for the evil in the world? Then what about the power of evil that shapes our society? “Some of us are imprisoned within systems of injustice that stretch back so many centuries. Some of us experience our skin colors, accents, genders, sexualities, or status as magnets for other people’s hatred.” Some of us were abused as children and victims of bullies. And what about the power of evil that affects our personal life? Some of us are caught in depression, addiction, anxiety, greed, self-loathing and so on. Some of us are slaves to money and lust. Some of us can’t shake off our violent impulses and resentments.
All these strong and week, obvious and insidious influences of demonic forces are more than real then as well as now. Certainly, the story of demon-possessed man in Gerasenes is not just an ancient oddity. It is, in a different way, an everyday story in our days and more or less, our own story. And the evil that haunts us has many faces, many names. They are indeed, “Legion,” like the demons identify themselves before Jesus, which means, a unit of 3,000 to 6,000 men in the Roman army. We are surrounded by a legion of evil forces. And every one of us is vulnerable to such forces that seek to take us over and separate us from Jesus and from one another. We are susceptible to such forces that seek to possess us and control our heart and mind, our emotion and reason, our motivation and choices. Look around and look inside.
Then, what shall we do to be protected and eventually liberated from such evil power? From the Gospel story, what I found as a solution is very simple. “Let Jesus call you and speak to you.” In the story, the healing begins as Jesus talks to him. He asks, “What is your name?” Then after he casts out the demons, he sends the man with a mission,“Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you” (Luke 8:39). Let Jesus call you and speak to you. Then you may not only get better but also become his servant to carry out his mission. It’s not difficult. Just practice listening to him.
Faithful friends in Christ, the power of evil and its demonic and destructive forces are real. They come to us in many faces and try to possess us always. So we should be awake in our prayer every day. Every day, we better check our heart and mind to see whether there is any influence of the evil. Also we should receive the word of God and renew our identity as God’s people as we gather on Sundays and in any other occasions. We better try to stay connected to Jesus and listen to him who calls us and speaks to us. Our Christian journey is a kind of battle. We should keep ourselves from the evil. But here is the good news: in this battle, the victory is already won by Jesus Christ our Lord. And this battle is ultimately not ours to win. Of course, we should do our best to be faithful followers of Jesus Christ on our journey. But it is ultimately Jesus who leads our way. So let him come to you; open your hearts and minds to him in your prayer, in your silent meditation, in your services, in your good works, in your fellowships. He will call you and speak to you. He will heal you and lead you into his mission of sharing the good news of liberation. In him, may we always find our healing and our freedom. Amen.
Debie Thomas, “Legion,” posted 16 June 2019 on www.journeywithjesus.net (https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=2259).