Fox Creek February 2020

Better the devil you know...

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Gospel: Luke 8:26-39

22 One day he got into a boat with his disciples, and he said to them, ‘Let us go across to the other side of the lake.’ So they put out, 23and while they were sailing he fell asleep. A gale swept down on the lake, and the boat was filling with water, and they were in danger. 24They went to him and woke him up, shouting, ‘Master, Master, we are perishing!’ And he woke up and rebuked the wind and the raging waves; they ceased, and there was a calm. 25He said to them, ‘Where is your faith?’ They were afraid and amazed, and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?’

26 Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, [Other ancient authorities read Gadarenes; others, Gergesenes] which is opposite Galilee. 27As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn [Other ancient authorities read a man of the city who had had demons for a long time met him. He wore ] no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. 28When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, ‘What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me’— 29for Jesus [Greek: he] had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) 30Jesus then asked him, ‘What is your name?’ He said, ‘Legion’; for many demons had entered him. 31They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss.

32 Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and they begged him to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. 33Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.

34 When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. 35Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. 36Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. 37Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked him to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. 38The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but he sent him away, saying, 39‘Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.’ So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.

Let me attempt a reading of this story.  Jesus has just calmed a storm; we might pun that he has shown his power over the elements, those elemental spirits (Col 2:8,20) that lurk in untamed depths of water.  Water remains dangerous in the imagination of the New Testament because although God has said Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear, (Genesis 1:9) which brought the chaos under control, creation is not yet complete. That will not happen until the sea [is] no more. (cf. Rev 21:1) The lake and the sea are always threat. And now Jesus steps out onto the land, which proves to be another place of elemental spirits. As he stepped out on land; this tells us the challenge is immediate. Perhaps the land is no more safe than the sea. Perhaps the sea is really only a symbol of the violence of the country in which we live. The Gerasenes are us.

The challenge at this moment comes from a man of the city. Where did the city come from? There is no mention of a city before this;  they were going to the country of the Gerasenes, which signifies the place— the whole cultural environment— which the Gerasenes inhabit. Suddenly the place they live is diagnosed as the city.

The city is always an ambiguous place in Scripture. It is certainly not green pastures beside still waters in the presence of God despite the presence of enemy and death. (Psalm 23) The city is the place of gathering which it is not called ecclesia. Unhealed city always has the smell of "The Naked City," John Sylvester's crime column from The Age. His title reflects the underbelly of our gathering as people. Under the brick-veneer of our civility there is something visceral and naked about us; something driven. We are owned by our appetites...

The man who cannot remain in a house, but is a man of the city is the one who welcomes Jesus to this land. But he is host in more ways than one. He has demons.

Here is where we can misread the story. This is not a story about a man who is mentally ill, or who is possessed. This is a story about us, one of us, to be sure, but if we do not see that this story is about us— about me,  we miss everything. We all have demons. This is beautifully illustrated by Phillip Pullman in The Golden Compass, where Lyra appears with her dæmon Pantalaimon. He is the essential her; her visible psyche, so to speak. Dæmons can change in Lyra's world as a child works out who she is: eventually the dæmon settles into a consistent form.

We think that our dæmon, our us-ness, is something we develop for ourselves. We are, after all, us. We have charted our course, we have chosen who we are.  But is this so? "We always learn to see through the eyes of another.... the desire of another directs our seeing and makes available to us what is to be seen." (James Alison On Being Liked pp1) We are formed before we know who we are, and by the time we begin to know who we are, we are blind to half the world.

But our dæmon perches upon our shoulder, just as Panatalaimon sits upon Lyra's shoulder or runs beside her.  We are, as in Genesis 3, naked before God, wearing no clothes; but not only this: those around us often see much more of us than we can see of our selves. Our dæmon betrays who we are.

This particular man has no clothes at all, for a long time... his illness is clear to be seen. Everything about him is uncovered. Like us, he is not his own. He is driven by something within in him which is, at the same time, also other or alien to him.

We could say that we humans have the Spirit of God in us, or some other spirit; that we have been graced to see, and follow, and imitate, the way of living of the Spirit, the way of Jesus, the way of the Father or... that we have not yet become able to see and follow that way. We could say we are becoming human or... that we are trapped and enslaved by the spirits— the dæmons, the demons, we have inherited; that we are caught in a way of living that bogs down the fulfilment of our creation into wholeness.

The dæmonic power in this particular man is unrestrained; he breaks chains. He shows us how much we are at the mercy of the things which push and pull us. Like him, we are enslaved, captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, (Col 2, 8,20) and not able to see what God is offering us.  Indeed, the man lives in the tombs, in the place of death... Perhaps we all find ourselves there.

And yet, like all of us, he also knows something is wrong. When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him. This is submission, but not only submission. It is a worship: What have you to do with me, Saviour [Jesus], Son of the Most High God? We see clearly the literary device which shows Jesus' power. What we do not see so easily is how much, even in this state, he and his demons— do you notice the move from plural to singular and back to plural— he and his demon, long for some resolution and some healing. Who is speaking in verse 28 when he says, I beg you, do not torment me? Why would the man fear that he was about to be tormented by the Jesus to whom he has just bowed and worshipped?  And if it is the demon(s) who speak, the unclean spirit which speaks, why does it beg not to be sent to the abyss?

The demons are us and, in the end, the abyss is not our place. The man is formed by us; that is, we, formed by others, form others. We are trapped. When we are reduced to such nakedness, all we can see as a way out of our captivity is the abyss of nothingness: "If all else fails, I can at least kill myself (and be oblivious)." But it is not the way we want to go. We do not want oblivion, we want life— or so we think to ourselves. And it is here that our torment resides because... to choose life costs everything, and causes us, in the words of the story, to be seized with great fear.

The man can't live in a house. The word translated as live is the same word as abide, or remain. We cannot stay still. We cannot find a settled and safe place to be. We chain ourselves down with mortgages and credit cards, we seek to bind ourselves up with the doctrine of the church, we seek to submit to the strictures of this group or that, seeking to heal ourselves, yet something in us always breaks the bonds. We know these things are not freedom, we know affluence is prison, but the only place we can find to go is into the tombs. We live in the place of the dead. We cannot find a pasture in which to lie down; there is no place of peace in the shadow of death. It all seems too costly, for we know that it will cost us everything, even ourselves.

I think that in our troubled times we have become very conscious that we live in the tombs. We see the chains and shackles and futilities which bind us, but no matter how much we guard and bind ourselves, we cannot hold down our desire for (or our fear of) freedom. We howl and weep and drug ourselves in a living death. I am startled, on the train, to hear the uneducated accents talking together, and to hear the street people self-analysing as they sit outside the church with the free coffee, all talking in the language of psychology. This stuff is not ivory tower speculation— we ordinary folk know we are in the grip of something Legion. As with the forces of Rome in Jesus' time, there is a multifaceted power everywhere loose in our country, which we cannot escape, and we know it.

And so, in the tombs, we stone ourselves! (I owe this insight to Girard. I'm importing the verse from Mark 5, here: 5Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones. ) We accept the verdict of society that we are possessed. The man did not need to be stoned by others, he knew he was unclean, cut off from God, cut off from any reason that made sense of the world... Yes, we do our best to blame others. We are practiced at pointing out the faults of others, which gives us a little comfort, a few rags of dignity, for at least we are not as bad as them. But in our deepest selves we know that we are naked. Our deeper heart knows we, too, are gripped by something that owns us.  And, especially among those who suffer most deeply, there is a certain wondering if we— if I...  am anything at all.  In a deep intuition, in the beginnings of grace, we begin to see that we are formed outside of ourselves, and this is intolerable. We beat and stone ourselves in fear, frustration, and loathing.

Which all brings us to the gate (John 10) out of the tombs. In some mysterious grace, even as he seeks to bargain with God, the man manages an honesty. What is your name? The text is clear that Jesus asks him this question, not the demons. Who are you, as a whole? What is your predicament? And the man says. "I am Legion. I am pushed, pulled, battered, powerless. I do not own myself.  Save me!"

In the old way of understanding, which is still the reality today, those who know our name have a power over us, so,  in reality...  when Jesus asks the man his name, it is an offer to take him over, to control him even, to become for him, as it were, his dæmon.  And the man consents. He gives Jesus his name. He puts himself in Jesus' power, and the demons lose their power over him.

The demons begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss.  The us which has formed him begs not to be destroyed and reduced to nothingness.

In the tradition, swine are unclean, which means separated from God in some sense; not right or holy. (None of this has anything to do with hygiene.) If we insist on remaining separated from God, what we do is rush down the steep bank into the lake. We drown ourselves in the unfinished places of creation which are grasping at us and chaining us. These places are an abyss, and the word abyss threatens that there may be no escape.  It is not the individual pigs who rush down, but the herd. If I refuse the Spirit's offer to inhabit me, then the whole lot of me, the whole clutch of ideas, desires, and fears which hold me body and soul, is lost to wander among the tombs of the unfinished and partial creation. I sink under the weight of the chains.

The man gives Jesus his name. He is freed of the demons.  He is free to become like Jesus, which is the only reason he is free.

But Jesus has, in this healing gift, stopped the man's self-harm and brought him to his right mind at last. He has said he is no longer the scapegoat. He is not the one at fault. He is not to blame for all the horror of our lives. Which means that the man in his right mind terrifies the city. In his right mind he sees through them, he knows who he has been and who we are. He sees our nakedness and we realise that we are naked.

When the scapegoat is shown to be innocent; that is, when we realise the one we are blaming is not the problem at all, then we are forced to look at ourselves. Perhaps the problem is us!  And of course, it is. Who will we blame now?

There is something quite conscious in all this. I know what is wrong with me. I know what I need to do. I know what I need to stop. And I know that I constantly refuse, for I am afraid to give myself to God.  I have finally realised that the constant negative self-talk I see in others who are ill, the constant self-sabotage, the repetitive foolish decisions... all of these are the things I do myself, only a little better disguised. Because I am afraid. For there is only one way to be free of them.  And that is to give myself up. It is to stop being the "me" that I think I am, the me which is really only a frightened imitation of others, and to let myself be re-formed. And this is a thing of terror. How can I do this? How can I trust that this other dæmon which claims to be Holy Spirit will not be worse than the first? Better the devil you know...

To give up my name, to let go of all that has formed me and which owns me, is to die. It is too much. And so the city— except, do you notice that it is now all the people of the surrounding country,  it is all of us, they asked him to leave them; for they were seized with great fear.  The herd is us. When I ask him to leave me I become an us with no centre, I lose the chance to become a me with Christ as centre, and I rush down the steep slope again into the watery tombs.

And now, the last burden and grace of the story. The man asks— begs— that he might be with him. Who would not!? But, and Jesus' tone is deliberately strong, he sent him away, saying, 39'Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.'

For you see, the home where we become free, and where we are healed, is here. There is no crossing over away from the country we are in.  Either we learn to live 'at home' in 'our country' or we live in the tombs. The reader might infer from this that I wonder if a certain sort of spirituality which flees the world, which flees the home we are in, might not actually be a sort of drifting toward the tombs. I have no doubt that there are ecclesia which are more city than they are green pasture and overflowing cup.

In all this there is no question if Jesus can heal. It is only whether we really want to be healed, or if we would rather stay with the devil we know.

Andrew Prior (2019)
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!

Also on One Man's Web
Luke 8:26-39 - Jesus as Ripley (2010)
Luke 8:26-39 - No longer possessed by the mob (2016)

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Brilliant analysis, Andrew. It should form part of a book, methinks.
Judith Stark 17-06-2019
You could write a book just on the subject of biblical naming. There is a full strain of feminist theology (In Memory of Her) that addresses the severe LACK of names! Thank you.... to complete my point... perhaps the dearth of female names in the scriptures is actually a GOOD thing, according to your perspective of the power of Naming....which fits in with Exodus 3:14 (I think that's the verse - "I am who I am". Thanks again.

Re: Naming
Andrew 18-06-2019
Thanks. I am beginning to understand that naming is incredibly important. How I name something, God included, creates my reality... Is this job really stretching me or is it killing me? My chaplain wife suggests to me that to use the second naming is really unhealthy!

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