Saturday, June 18, 2016

Recognising the Demoniac

Over a month since I have been near the blog - not good!

A reflection for the 12th Sunday in Ordinary Time

The figure of Elijah has set a potent imprint on the religious imagination and is a presence in our most powerful narratives; his name and his story are tied up with literature of the apocalypse and the end of time.  It is no casual detail that in the Passover meal a place is always set for Elijah and his return at the end of days.  In our segment from his story we catch a glimpse of the prophet frightened and drained; then, like Moses before him, he is sent on a journey to Sinai where he experiences a powerful theophany and, so equipped by that experience of God, he is sent back to where he came from, the region of Damascus and the Decapolis in Upper Galilee.  In Jewish tradition this was a place prophesied to be the scene of apocalyptic activity leading to the redemption of Israel.

This is where we meet Jesus in our gospel this morning: Upper Galilee and a wilderness area, roughly the place where God’s redemptive action will take place at the end of days.   The named location (Gerasa) makes no sense – it is about 60 km south east of the Sea of Galilee – but we can set that detail aside and simply note it as a sign of a complex origin.  But we are in Gentile territory, not Israel and there are some signs which demand our attention.  For instance ‘Legion’ was a designation for one of Rome’s armies and the one stationed in Palestine had a boar on its standard.  Is there a political joke when Jesus sends the legion to drown in the sea – reminiscent of the Egyptians drowning in the Red Sea story of Exodus?

In our gospel, even more than Elijah in 1 Kings, Jesus is shown as the locus or source of divine power: we first notice this in the segment preceding our reading, the passage telling of how Jesus stills the storm on the lake.  Immediately after that powerful sign Jesus is confronted by the demoniac – and we see what the gospeller presents as a stark confrontation of the Holy with the unholy.  The story is told as an exorcism.  The demoniac is presented as a man held in thrall to dark invasive powers that possess superhuman strength.  He has come from a city, though no city is near to the named location; he inhabits the tombs (though why there would be tombs in the wilderness is not clear); and he is naked and has a history of being driven by his demons into the wilderness.  The demons recognize who Jesus is, leave as commanded, and enter the swine which stampede into the lake and are drowned.  The exorcism narrative becomes politically subversive and Jesus can be thought of as more than a spiritual liberator.

An advantage for keeping this story firmly within reference to demon possession is that we are able understand the scope of evil as always having something about it which more than just the individual.  It may be that there was some memory of the Roman army that traumatised the community and has been projected in this story as a spiritual possession.   What is it that twists our lives, our politics, and our social structures and threatens to completely overwhelm us and subvert all good things? 

To say that is to open this gospel to our present and to enquire how it may speak to us now.  There are other demons that seem to drive us into forms of madness.  Ever since 9/11 Muslims have been targeted for hatred and suspicion and the excesses of Donald Trump’s language seem to epitomise a kind of madness.   Just the other day, the British parliamentarian, Jo Cox was shot and stabbed, it seems in the name of some anti-Immigrant cause – another kind of madness; we may also wonder what kind of madness possesses a man to kill and maim so many strangers in that Orlando nightclub last week?

Are there other forms of possession which threaten to overwhelm us – perhaps more subtly: for instance, our materialism, our consumerism, our stupidity and carelessness with the environment?  Are there things in us which, like so many Gadarene swine, need to be expelled and drowned?  Can it be that when we confront the demoniac with Jesus, we also face up to the darkness and madness in ourselves?

The story ends strangely.  We find the demoniac clothed and in his right mind, at peace in the presence of Jesus; which is another way of saying in the presence of the source and power of God’s love.  Yet it seems a little odd that the locals would prefer to have Jesus move on and not stay near them.  His power is a disturbing element; it can change us; and maybe we don’t entirely want to be changed.

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