The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
This poor man. Possessed by a multitude of demons, living in a graveyard, all alone, stripped naked, exposed to the elements, violent, shackled with chains. No wonder the people of Gerasenes feared and abandoned him. But Jesus was not afraid. He stopped, saw this man not as a monster, but as a broken human being. Jesus gave him the gift of loving attention.
How hard this is to do with people who are different, who are disturbed. Most of us are like the townspeople. We roll up the windows, lock the doors, and look the other way.
Some months ago I was walking downstairs to the swimming pool to do some laps, and a man passed me on the steps, talking nonsensically to himself, jerking his head. As I approached the pool, there was another swimmer who asked me, in agitation, “Did you see that guy? Should we call security?” I asked him why, and he said “I pay good money as a member not to have to deal with people like that.” I assured him that the man was harmless and should be left alone, and slipped into the pool.
Perhaps the reason we shun the mentally ill is that we are afraid of our own potential craziness. Rather than acknowledging the scary parts of ourselves, we project it outwards on the world around us, splitting ourselves off from those unfortunate people. Phew! I’m glad I’m not like that!
Well, Jesus stopped and paid attention. The demons inside the man began raising a ruckus, begging Jesus to leave them alone, because they recognized his divine energy and were invested in remaining where they were. Their home inside this man was comfortable, predictable. He had adapted his life to accommodate their needs: a nice graveyard, people keeping their distance. So there was initial resistance to Jesus.
Recently the members of the Discernment Guild and I were reading an article on resistance to God. It pointed out the kinds of obstacles we place in the Spirit’s path. We make ourselves so busy in the morning with little chores so that we don’t have time for the prayer we say we want to do. On a retreat, we have a profound insight that shows us a clear direction forward, but later it fades away, and eventually we tell ourselves “it was just a temporary emotional high. Nothing to do with God, really.” We find ways of keeping our little dysfunctions in place because they’re more familiar to us than the liberation that God offers.
But Jesus remained, in spite of the demons’ resistance to him. He then asked their name.
Why? Well, the desert monks of the 3rd century knew why. One of them, Evagrius Ponticus, said that for a monk to deal with the demons they would encounter in their solitude, they had to address effective words against them, that is to say, those words which correctly characterize the one present. And we must do this before they drive us out of our own state of mind. He knew that if you name your demon, that is, if you use “words which correctly characterize the one present,” you gain power over them.
Every therapist and doctor knows this. Once you diagnose symptoms as the signs of depression or anxiety or leukemia or diabetes, you gain power over them because you know how to treat them.
And so when Jesus asked the demons to name themselves, they said they were Legion, many. What did this name signify? That this poor man had as many demons inside him as a Roman Legion, which could be several thousand men. In fact, in Mark’s version of this same story, it says that when the demons were cast out, they went into 2,000 pigs, apparently one for each demon.
So he was inhabited by a multiplicity of conflicting and destructive forces. It was inner chaos. But while this man serves as an extreme example of psychic fragmentation, we are all, in a much less dramatic way, in the same position.
C.S. Lewis discovered this about himself when he began a life of faith, when he finally got around to looking seriously at himself. He said "For the first time I examined myself with a seriously practical purpose. And there I found what appalled me: a zoo of lusts, a bedlam of ambitions, a nursery of fears, a harem of fondled hatreds. My name was Legion."
This same thing happens to anyone who does serious self-examination. It often happens when one undertakes a practice of contemplative prayer or meditation. Sit in silence for a few minutes, and everything will reveal itself: lust, ambition, fear, and hatred. We are all named Legion.
Sometimes it seems as though there’s just too much inner complication to find our way through it. And so when we hear in our gospel story how Jesus cast out the legion of demons and the man was later found clothed, in his right mind, quietly sitting at Jesus’ feet, then going out and declaring to others how much God had done for him, we wonder how on earth that might happen for us. How can we possibly still the storm of anger within, or addiction, or worry, and find peace?
Well, one thing is clear in our story for today. The man didn’t find it by himself. He couldn’t. He was helpless until Jesus came along. Jesus brought a power to this poor man that was way beyond anything he could manage on his own.
In fact, the gospel implies what kind of divine power Jesus had, by placing this story immediately after another strikingly similar one. Jesus and his disciples had just been out on the Sea of Galilee, and a huge storm came up, threatening to capsize the boat. The disciples were terrified of the chaotic and destructive potency of nature. Jesus stood up, faced down the storm, and told it to be still.
It was at this point that they landed on the shore and encountered the demoniac. His was not the only chaos they had to deal with. Gerasenes was foreign territory to the Jewish disciples, filled with Gentiles, unclean pigs, and God knows what else. So the sea was stormy within and without. And again, Jesus stood still and calmed the chaos.
Whether the chaos we sometimes feel is within us or around us, we discover that we’re unable to master it on our own. Circumstances are beyond our control; we can’t tame the inner beast. When this is true, our only hope is God, and we find that God does not fail us. Tossed about on a leaky boat in a lightning storm, possessed by a legion of inner forces we can’t wish away, the only thing we can do is ask for God to come to us and do what we cannot do.
When we get to the end of our rope, when all our puny powers have run their course, we have no other alternative but to pray. When we get to the point of helplessness, we are finally able to really place our trust in one thing, and one thing alone: the grace of God.
Paradoxically, it is in our weakness that we find power. It is in surrender that we are victorious. Because at this point, we are finally ready. God then stands before us saying Peace, be still, and we are. The sea is calm, the sun shines again; we find ourselves clothed and in our right mind, sitting quietly before the Master.
So what are we to take with us from this rich story and rambling sermon? Perhaps this. We’re all mentally ill, possessed by many demons; it’s just a matter of degree. It won’t help us or anyone else to project this out on to others. Instead, we can get to know and name the forces of our own inner chaos. We can discover our resistance to liberation. All of this can be overwhelming, but we are not alone. God has the power to still any storm, if we can get to the point of placing our whole trust in him.
Our name may be Legion. But by grace, we too are able to declare how much God has done for us.