Sermon for HIGH MASS – Trinity 4 Sunday 19 June 2016
Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie
There are three disturbing prayers in that Gospel. The demoniac cries out to Jesus ‘Do not torment me!’; the demons beg not to be ordered back to the abyss; and those who live nearby (in what is gentile territory) ask Jesus to clear off.
These are not the sort of prayers we hear in our liturgy, but they probably resonate with our inner selves and instinctive responses in many situations. Now and then, even some of us might have wished that Jesus, with his searing vision and irritating habit of telling us to treat everyone well by putting ourselves last, would clear off and leave us alone.
Gerasa, where this happened, had recently become notorious as a centre of Jewish revolt, a rebellion which had been brutally put down by the Roman army. The Jewish historian Josephus reports that the Emperor Vespasian’s general, Lucius Annius, slaughtered 1,000 rebels who were besieged in Gerasa, then destroying both it and the surrounding villages. The odd naming of the demoniac as ‘Legion’ is understood to be a link between the exorcism of evil powers occupying the demoniac and this extreme act of Roman oppression. Then there are the pigs. The word used here for ‘herd’, together with verbs like ‘commanded’ and ‘charged’, suggest an association between the expelled demonic powers and the military. It is a regular feature of exorcism stories that demons fear homelessness and do not like to be moved about. Their preference for the pigs is obvious, given the animal’s evil associations in Judaism; the association of a Roman legion with a herd of pigs is also an attractive irony to Jewish listeners; that the demons eventually end up in the sea, the place of chaos and demonic activity, is likewise appropriate. The demons, with the pigs, are not so much destroyed as returned to their natural home.
Back to those prayers: ‘Do not torment me’.
We might compare St Augustine’s well-known prayer, ‘Lord, make me chaste, but not yet.’ These words are spoken by a man in the agony of what we would call mental illness, and mental illness of the sort which provokes particular suffering because the sufferer is fully aware of what is happening to them. I’ve met many such people at the extreme end of this spectrum; and it is, precisely, a spectrum. We all move back and forth along a line between perfect rationality and the opposite; happily most of us don’t move too far from the comfortably rational, but we can all acknowledge moments of irrational and damaging behaviour that we knew, at the time or afterwards, needed to be corrected, and yet we didn’t want to free ourselves of them. Addictions of many kinds are an obvious example, but there are plenty of others, including many kinds of unhealthy relationship, which may diminish our lives or separate us from God. The freedom which Jesus offers is precisely intended to release us from these types of circumstances. It is not the nebulous freedom we often hear about, which seems to mean doing what we like regardless of others’ good. When we hear talk of freedom it is always good to ask ‘from what’? It is not a state of being that exists in a moral vacuum.
Then, from the demons: ‘they begged him not to send them back to the abyss’.
In the Old Testament, and also more widely in the ancient world, the sea was especially associated with evil powers, a place to be feared and conquered. In the psalms and elsewhere we hear of scary sea-monsters such as Rahab, remnants of earlier creation myths in which the sea represents the primal chaos which God had to tame in separating sea and land. In the Exodus story the people pass through the death-dealing waters of the sea unharmed: at the Easter Vigil we appropriate that to our rescue from death by Christ through the waters of baptism.
In later Jewish religion the sea retained its reputation as the natural abode of demons; rabbinic theology provided for both a fiery and watery hell. So, in today’s story, the demons end up there. When Jesus calms the storm, and again when he walks on the sea, he is shown to exercise the divine authority over primal chaos. The demons are portrayed as naturally preferring to inhabit the crazed tomb-dweller, but they know where they belong: notice how this is expressed: ‘they begged him not to send them back to the abyss’.
Finally, from the people who live in Gerasa: ‘please go away’.
Flippancy aside, is this such a strange request? Earlier in this gospel Peter says to Jesus, ‘depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man’ (5.8). It is true that in public and private prayer we ask Jesus to be with us. At Christmas we rejoice in him as Emmanuel, God-with-us. The Mass is predicated on his nearer presence. But do we really want this awkward, unsettling and sometimes, frankly, threatening figure around? Few of us would cope well with him as a PCC member, let alone a Parish priest. Be careful what you wish for.
There is a fourth prayer in this story: restored to health, the man begs to stay with Jesus. The answer is unexpected. Jesus sends him home (it is good to hear that he has one) and commands him to tell everyone what God has done for him. The odd thing is that Jesus does not enjoin secrecy on the man as he so often does on those he has healed. The Gentiles, it seems, are to be let in on the secret of who Jesus is before his own people.
There are always people around us we don’t want to acknowledge or deal with. Some of them sleep here all week. Try talking to one of them if you get the chance: I’ve found it illuminating.