Here’s the kind of demon that I’m used to dealing with:
But demons can be all sorts of things.
Anything that haunts you and controls you can be thought of as a demon.
We’re going to talk a little about those today.
And we’re also going to talk about the demons that show up in the gospels and talk to Jesus before he casts them out.
What do we do with those?
If you ever do some research on demons in the New Testament, you will quickly find that there are two schools of thought on the matter.
On the one hand, you’ll find people who say, “Of course there are demons loose in the world, and here are 10 signs to see if your neighbor has one.”
On the other, there are those who say, “‘Demons’ was just how ancient people described sickness, because they were soooooo stuuuupiiid.”
Now all we need to do to see what ancient people knew about sickness is look at a verse like
So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them.
And we can see that they knew about sickness back then. They weren’t stupid.
And you aren’t either. So you’ve already started waiting for me to say what the third way is…because we all know that there are never just two sides to any issue.
The third way is that the Bible isn’t about whether or not demons exist. The Bible is about Jesus.
The Bible shows us who Jesus is, and what he has done for us. It’s not a book of definitions. Neither is it an embarrassment to the modern intellect. It’s about Jesus.
And when you read the Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, and Luke, you find out that Jesus was an exorcist.
He was an exorcist, even though I don’t believe that exorcists exist. The nerve!
I also don’t believe that faith healers exist. And Jesus was one of those. I don’t believe that people can walk on water, yet Jesus did that, too.
Also, I don’t think people can rise from the dead. But the Church exists today because one time, Jesus did just that.
So the the Bible isn’t about you.
It’s not about me.
It’s about Jesus. From Genesis to Maps. It’s all about Jesus.
Even when it’s not directly about Jesus, it is.
When it talks about a great flood in Genesis, that isn’t the story of how God made a canyon or got rid of unicorns, that’s a story about our need for Jesus because of sin.
In Exodus, when the Bible tells us about the ten commandments, that isn’t a story about how the world could be good if only people would follow the rules, it’s another story of how we will never be able to save ourselves, and we need Jesus to save us. And on and on.
If you don’t believe that about the Bible, I would love the opportunity to change your mind, but for today, if you could just take it as a given, that would be great.
So on any particular subject, we’re mis-reading the Bible if we’re reading it using this false dichotomy lens of true or false, right or wrong, in or out, faith or reason. That’s not what it’s about.
It’s about Jesus.
So what do demons have to do with Jesus?
The Gospels don’t tell us what demons look like, or how they are organized. They don’t tell us that they still are around. What Matthew, Mark and Luke do tell us about them (John never mentions them.) is that they were evil spirits who controlled people. And that they recoginized and spoke to Jesus. They told the truth about who Jesus was. And Jesus cast them out.
There are a lot of exorcism stories in the Gospels that are very similar to each other. And then there is our scripture today. This one is unique. So let’s look at it together.
Mark 5:1-20 (NRSV)
5 They came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes.
They, that is Jesus and his disciples, came to the other side of the sea, (in a boat, there was a storm, Jesus calmed it) to the country of the Gerasenes.
Now this was Gentile country. Jesus did most of his teaching and healing on the Western side of the Sea of Galilee, but now he has crossed over to the Eastern side, on the other side of the Jordan river.
As a Jewish man, he was where he didn’t really belong. Actually he was where he didn’t belong times three. Because we’re about to see that he was in a foreign land for one, but he is about to meet a man who lived in a graveyard (which makes you ceremonially unclean as a Jew, that’s two) and the graveyard was right next to a herd of swine, that’s three. Hearing this story originally, any good Jew would know that that Jesus was in a bad place. But Jesus didn’t care about things like that.
And when he had stepped out of the boat, immediately a man out of the tombs with an unclean spirit met him. He lived among the tombs; and no one could restrain him any more, even with a chain; for he had often been restrained with shackles and chains, but the chains he wrenched apart, and the shackles he broke in pieces; and no one had the strength to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones.
This is a man who is pretty far gone. It’s obvious that he has been abandoned by his friends and community, probably for fair reasons. And while this story is about a supernatural demon, we can see the inner demons of our own time and place in this man. The self-harm. The failure of restraints to curb behavior. That no one could force this man to do better. And by the end of verse 5, he’s not even really a man any more.
But this is the man that Jesus is going to save.
Jesus is going to save the one who is so far gone that his friends left him in a grave yard. That’s the first way that this story is about Jesus far more than it is about demons.
Jesus is the kind of savior who goes out of his way, sticks his nose where others would say it doesn’t belong, and works for the good of those who are so far gone that everyone else already gave up on them.
When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and bowed down before him; and he shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.” For he had said to him, “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!”
Then Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” He replied, “My name is Legion; for we are many.”
Now, remember all the ways that Jesus has butted in where others would say he doesn’t belong? Well here’s one more.
It’s in the name of these demons. Legion. That’s a spooky name, right? But it might mean more than just being scary. What else was named Legion back then?
A legion was a large unit of Roman soldiers.
We usually talk about the scandal it was for Roman soldiers to be in the holy city of Jerusalem, but this was far away from Israel. This was Roman occupied territory too. But the people they were occupying weren’t Jewish.
So on one level, this is a story about a man who is incredibly far gone being saved by Jesus.
But on another level, this might just be Jesus and the early church making a very political statement.
It’s a statement about the demonic nature of occupation, and not just when it affects your own people, how it strips the humanity from those who keep the peace with the tip of their spear, as well as from those who are subjugated by their power.
And if you think that’s a stretch, look at the next verse.
He begged him earnestly not to send them out of the country.
That’s every army’s desire. To not be beaten. To not be driven back out of the country they have taken.
And it’s also every demon’s desire, whether supernatural or not, to not give up the territory they have taken in the lives they’ve invaded.
But here and elsewhere, Jesus doesn’t mince words. He doesn’t try to understand the demon, or hear it out. He just makes it leave.
Now there on the hillside a great herd of swine was feeding; and the unclean spirits begged him, “Send us into the swine; let us enter them.” So he gave them permission. And the unclean spirits came out and entered the swine; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the sea, and were drowned in the sea.
Have you ever seen Jesus destroy private property before? Because you just did.
How much would 2000 pigs be worth? A whole lot. Probably even more back then, than they are today. And Mark tells us that all the pigs belonged to one herd. Which I’m going to guess means they were owned by one person.
One very rich person, who most likely had one major customoer: The Roman Legion. It takes a lot of pork to make the wheels of government turn.
Jesus doesn’t hesitate. He doesn’t equivocate. He doesn’t say “Well, whoever owns those pigs is creating lots of jobs. We shouldn’t judge the rich by the same rules.” Jesus just acts.
The swineherds ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came to see what it was that had happened. They came to Jesus and saw the demoniac sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, the very man who had had the legion; and they were afraid. Those who had seen what had happened to the demoniac and to the swine reported it. Then they began to beg Jesus to leave their neighborhood.
These people met a man who was able to remove evil from their town. They should have given him the key to the city, but instead they begged him to leave. They should have taken him by the hand and said, “There is so much more for you to fix! Come with us!” But instead they kicked him out.
People get used to evil, don’t they?
When the status quo runs on evil, we always choose the status quo.
As he was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed by demons begged him that he might be with him. But Jesus refused, and said to him, “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.” And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him; and everyone was amazed.
In the end, Jesus did it all for one person. He crossed a sea, defeated thousands of demons, destroyed the property of the rich, and shook a town’s foundations, all for one man. He took away one man’s demons and replaced them with a call to share the good news.
So whether or not you believe in the supernatural, I hope you see from this text that that is secondary to what is really going on here. It’s not really about what Jesus taught us about demons but what the demons in the gospels teach us about Jesus.
- They hit home the idea that Jesus cane here to fight against evil. Not to negotiate with it, but to expel it.
- Jesus came to save us from things that possess us. Whether it’s addictions, or philosophies, or a literal army ruling us, Jesus came to save us.
- Jesus isn’t always careful and considerate. He doesn’t make sure that the action he takes is fair to everyone. He tanked the whole economy of Geresa to save one man from evil. Maybe we should be less careful too. Maybe we should spend less time worrying about the consequences of exorcising evil and more time attacking the problems of the world at its root.
About the Author
David Collins is the co-pastor of Maitland Presbyterian Church near Orlando, FL. Find him on Twitter @davidrcollins
And here are some more demon dogs…