October 2, 2012
Dear brothers and sisters,
Today I’m taking the good news from Matthew 8:28-34, a story told by both Mark and Luke.
When he came to the other side, to the territory of the Gadarenes, two demoniacs who were coming from the tombs met him. They were so savage that no one could travel by that road. They cried out, “What have you to do with us, Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the appointed time?” Some distance away a herd of many swine was feeding. The demons pleaded with him, “If you drive us out, send us into the herd of swine.” And he said to them, “Go then!” They came out and entered the swine, and the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the sea where they drowned. The swineherds ran away, and when they came to the town they reported everything, including what had happened to the demoniacs. Thereupon the whole town came out to meet Jesus, and when they saw him they begged him to leave their district.
I find it interesting that in the preceding passage wherein Jesus still the storm, his disciples asked themselves, “What sort of man is this?” Afterwards on the other side of the Sea of Galilee two men possessed by demons call him the Son of God, the first time he is so addressed in Matthew’s gospel. We find the same thing in Mark’s gospel in which the author wrote, “[W]henever unclean spirits saw him the would fall down before him and shout, ‘You are the Son of God.'” In Luke’s gospel we read about the demoniac in Capernaum whom Jesus cured on the sabbath, “I know who you are — the Holy One of God!” This is the first time I’ve realized that demons were the first to recognize the identity of Jesus, to declare his divinity. Why?
None of my usual references shed address this question. The Catholic Dictionary (1955) defines possession as: “A state in which an evil spirit, by God’s permission, inhabits the body of a rational being. The devil is able in this way to torture the body, to deceive the senses by hallucinations, and indirectly, because of the connection between soul and body, to torture the soul, to impair and pervert its faculties. He cannot, however, inhabit the soul, for this is a power which belongs to God alone; much less can he master the free will and force the possessed person to sin. But he may increase to a fearful extent the power of temptation, overpower the body, and even produce insanity, in which last case the possessed person may of course commit actions outwardly sinful, for which he is not responsible.”
The New American Bible notes that this “notion that evil spirits were allowed by God to afflict human beings until the time of the final judgment is found” in Enoch and Jubilees, neither of which are included in the biblical canon today. Clearly, in the gospels Jesus and the people of his time believed in possession by evil spirits and it was not uncommon to encounter these poor people. There are many reports in the scriptures and other historical documents that Jesus and others regularly cast out these demons. Today we tend to discount or deny possession.
Psychiatrist and author Scott Peck regards possession and exorcism as spiritual warfare. He writes in People of the Lie, “According to this myth and doctrine, in the beginning Satan was God’s second-in-command, chief among all His angels, the beautiful and beloved Lucifer. The service it performed in God’s behalf was to enhance the spiritual growth of human beings through the use of testing and temptation — just as we test our own children in school so as to enhance their growth. Satan, therefore, was primarily a teacher of mankind, which is why it was called Lucifer, “the light bearer.” As time went by, however, Satan became so enamored with its adversarial functions that it began to employ them more for its own delight than on God’s behalf. This is see in the Book of Job. Coincidentally, God decided that something more was required than simple testing for the uplifting of mankind; what was required was both an example of His love and an example to live by. So He sent His only son to live and die as one of us. Satan was superseded by Christ both in function and in God’s heart. It was so enamored of itself that Satan perceived this as an intolerable personal insult. Puffed up with pride, it refused to submit to God’s judgment of the precedence of Christ. It rebelled against God. Satan itself created the situation in which heaven became literally not big enough for both of them. So Satan was inevitably, by its own doing, immediately cast into hell, where, once the light bearer, it now dwells in darkness as the Father of Lies, nursing continual dreams of revenge against God. And through the angels at its command, who joined it in its rebellion and fall, it now wages continual war against God’s design. Where once it exited to spiritually uplift mankind, it now exists primarily to spiritually destroy us. In the battle for our souls it attempts to oppose Christ at every turn. Satan perceives Christ as its personal enemy. As Christ in spirt lives, so is Satan the living Antichrist.”
This all helps me understand and accept that evil spirits exist. They, too, are all knowing making their rebellion against God so effective. That is how the two demoniac men knew that Jesus was the Son of God and that he was about the expel the demons from their bodies.
Peck goes on to state, “Satan has no power except in a human body. Satan cannot do evil except through a human body….Satan’s threats are always empty. They are all lies. In fact, the only power that Satan has is through human belief in its lies….Satan can use any human sin or weakness — greed, pride, for instance. It will use any available tactic: seduction, cajolery, flattery, intellectual argument. But is principal weapon is fear.”
In his description of exorcism Peck observed, “[T]he possession was ended when both [patients] chose to believe its lies no longer but to transcend their fear by trust in the resurrected Christ and to pray to the God of truth for deliverance. During each exorcism Satan’s lies were confronted. And each exorcism was concluded successfully by a conversion of sorts — a change of faith or value system. I now know what Jesus meant when he so frequently said, ‘By your faith you have been healed.'”
I tend to resist the reality of Satan and evil. But evil spirits are real and active in our world just as they were in Jesus’ time. I have to recognize evil in the lies I tell myself and that others tell me. I have to recognize evil spirits in the temptations I encounter. I have to recognize evil when I want to submit to my own greed, pride, envy and the other expressions of selfishness that corrupt my soul. They are lies told to me by the Father of Lies. It is those times that I most need to pray to the God of truth for deliverance from evil just as I do when I recite the Lord’s Prayer.
That’s how I understand this gospel story for me today. To be on guard, to be aware, to pray that Satan will not be able to use me to perpetrate evil but instead to act in love at all times. Love in the only fully effective counter to evil because love comes from God — God is love.