Then they found the man, out of whom the devils were departed, sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed, and in his right mind: and they were afraid. (From the Gospel reading)
This morning’s Gospel is one of the most strange accounts in all of the Gospels. It’s also one of my favorites, because I think it offers a striking representation of self-destructive humanity which is delivered and renewed by God in Christ. After crossing the sea of Galilee, our Lord and his disciples enter into a primarily Gentile region—this is evident by the fact that in this county the people keep herds of pigs which of course then and now are forbidden food for observant Jews. In this land our Lord and his disciples meet a man who, according to St. Luke, had certain devils long time, and ware no clothes, neither abode in any houses but in the tombs. In a parallel account in the Gospel of Mark, we are told in addition that this man used to cut himself with stones. I cannot help but be struck how suggestive this detail is for our own age. There is a small but significant trend among young people—young women in particular—to cut themselves and practice self-harming. One of the triggers for this in this intense negativity that young people feel about themselves and their bodies. I believe that this phenomenon is not just isolated abnormality of human psychology but actually an acute manifestation of the more pervasive problem of self-loathing. Listen, you probably don’t cut yourself, you may not even loathe yourself, but I bet you know a lot of people in the world, and maybe young people in your family who loathe themselves. Look at the staggering number of suicides every year among teens and those in their twenties. Despite Gen-Xer’s and Millennials being fed a steady diet of self-esteem reinforcement with things like participation awards, very little of this has seemed to translate into greater confidence and positive self-image. The world, my friends, has defined what constitutes a happy life—certain physical looks, popularity, academic and professional success—and when these don’t measure up, as inevitably they don’t because we’re human, the living flesh and blood pales with this perfect image, and self-loathing ensues. The demon-afflicted man may seem a world apart from us, but I would suggest that he is really a representation of our self-loathing society and may be a portrait of us in self-loathing or self-destructive behavior.
But the power of the Gospel is that our Lord comes and he wants to deliver this demon-afflicted man. There is no personal gain for our Lord—he just pities this afflicted son of Adam and wants to see him restored to his right mind. What further illustrates the vigor of self-destruction in these demons is that our Lord at the demons’ request sends them into a herd of swine. The demons who make the man cut himself, enter into the swine and the herd runs violently down a steep place into the lake and are choked.
Life, my friends, is a battle. It is outward battle of trials and vexations, mostly things out of our control, and it is inward battle as we struggle with sin and temptation and fight our own inner demons of addiction, or self-hatred, or anger, or greed, or malice. All these kill. These are the demons that cause the man to cut himself and that move the herd to be cast violently down and drowned. The demonic is self-destructive, as is sin. We think sin will make us happy or at least will not harm us, but on another cognitive level we are usually aware of how unhappy sin makes us and how sin robs us of spiritual joy. Clinging to that rage will kill you. Ask any doctor, and he will tell you that the stress of anger increases blood pressure and the rates of heart attack and stroke. Ask any Christian, and you will be told that anger roots out joy and peace. And yet in a kind of insanity we cling to that rage and anger. Addiction to alcohol or pornography will do the same thing: driving one to self-destruction. Part of the nature of sin is that it causes self-destruction. St. Augustine makes a profound statement on this point. In explaining the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself, he points out that implicit to the commandment is the love of self. And so he asks the questions what does it mean to love yourself, and concludes that to love yourself is to have compassion on yourself; to have compassion on yourself is simply not to sin because sin is that which kills us.
Our Lord wills to deliver those who are afflicted by inner demons. In this miracle, the kingdom of God breaks into human existence. In the kingdom of God, there is liberation for the captive, freedom for the possessed, joy for those who are cast down by sorrow and despair. Listen to this beautiful succession of actions attributed to God in the Psalms: The Lord upholds the cause of the oppressed, and gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets prisoners free, the Lord gives sight to the blind, the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down. . . the Lord watches over the foreigner, and sustains the fatherless and the widow. Our Lord’s ministry is the manifestation of these works of God, exemplified in this miracle. Our Lord reveals God’s dominion over every spiritual evil in his kingdom. If our Lord delivers the man who cuts himself with stones, he will deliver you too from your inner demons and self-destructive behavior. Your deliverance may not come overnight—the implication is that the man has been possessed for years—but seek the Lord in prayer of the heart, gather together in Christian fellowship, study the Bible to hear God’s word to you—and your deliverance will come. When we are going through a time of intense internal struggle, it is so easy not to look beyond the present feelings and circumstances, and so to hand ourselves over to despair. The God whom we worship, revealed perfectly in Jesus Christ, wants to deliver us from every demon, addiction and sin. We are his children, he has pity on the afflicted sons and daughters of Adam.
Dear Lord and Father of mankind, Forgive our foolish ways!
Reclothe us in our rightful mind, In purer lives Thy service find,
In deeper reverence, praise.
Kyle Williams is a graduate student and a member of Trinity Church.