Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio
January 29, 2012
In high school, I visited the psychiatric ward at the hospital. My mother was visiting a woman from our church, I was too young to drive, and with Mom as my chauffeur, I was stuck tagging along wherever she wanted to make stops.
I remember toting my textbooks inside this foreign place, planning to retreat to some unnoticed corner and work on homework while I waited for Mom to finish her visit. But then, to my own shock and surprise, I struck up conversation with some patients on my own accord. As in, I initiated it. There we all were, sitting in the lounge area, and I just started talking, like I was some kind of friendly person. Which I most definitely was not.
I’ve always been the shy type, and I was especially so as a teenager, when there was so much pressure to sound cool every time you opened your mouth. But I guess the fact that I was surrounded by crazy people who were not likely to judge my coolness nor had the social status to do so anyway, drove some of my shyness away, and it occurred to me that maybe they needed a friend. Not a doctor who was paid to help them, or a family member who was sort of stuck with them, but just someone who wasn’t trying to “help” anything at all, but just talked to them because she recognized their humanity hidden behind the quirks.
If there had been psychiatric wards in Jesus’ day, I’m sure he would have paid them a visit. There was no such thing at the time, but Jesus did engage many a demon-possessed person. I’m not sure if a demon-possessed person is comparable to a patient in the ward or not, and theologians, scholars, and doctors aren’t really sure either. To be honest, this whole business of possession and exorcism has got a lot of enlightened intellectuals all fussed. How do you explain such extreme spiritualism and still maintain the credibility of Scripture in a modern culture? Frank Peretti novels aside, demons and possession don’t make much splash in the daily news. They are not a part of our daily conversations or awareness, except for occasional horror movies, which I avoid pretty religiously anyway. No matter what our take on the Bible and the reality of miracles, we have to admit that demonology just isn’t really a part of our atmosphere anymore, even in the church.
We read Gospel stories like the one today, and hooray for Jesus casting out demons Way Back Then, but what has it got to do with Now? We’ve got scientific labels for people who aren’t right in the head. And if we encounter someone crazy who doesn’t neatly fit an existing label, we’re more apt to find a new disorder than to chalk up their behavior to something so primitive-sounding as demon-possession.
Which potentially makes these Gospel stories problematic. Did Jesus really understand what he was up against? Was it mental illness, not really a demon? If it was a demon, what has become of demons in our day and age? Has medication replaced Jesus?
I am inclined to think that such debates miss the point. What every generation of history can agree on is that Evil—capital E—is wickedly real—it has a million faces, a horridly long reach, a tenacious grasp, a frighteningly quick pace, and a sickeningly sweet smile. It is fierce and aggressive, deceitful and subtle, violent and tricky, and we are tempted to believe there is no end to the havoc it can unleash in human lives.
The man in today’s text has collided with such Evil in a terrible way, and its havoc on him is so severe it has rendered the man useless and unfit for society. If we were reading in Greek, we would see that in verse 23, this man is described as being “in an unclean spirit,” which differs slightly from verse 25, Jesus casts the evil spirit out of the man. One commentator explains it this way: “These two beings [the man and the spirit] are conceived as somehow ensphering each other, and sometimes one, sometimes the other, is said to enclose the being identified with it. The demon is said to be in the man, or the man in the demon. In [v.23], the man is said to be in the unclean spirit, and v. 25, the unclean spirit it said to come out of him.”
I find this to be a powerful image for those of us who have known some form of Evil—be it fear, rage, betrayal, addiction, violence, anxiety, depression—whatever face Evil displayed in your case, you could never quite tell whether the evil was inside of you, ravaging and plundering and tearing you to pieces from the inside out, or whether you were inside of it, swallowed and engulfed, lost inside its Dreadful Bigness, like a child in the dark. These two beings—the Great Evil and you—were somehow ensphering one another. Sometimes it was inside of you, like an awful burden you couldn’t seem to shed, and sometimes you were inside it, like a cage with no exits.
Sometimes this happens to you; sometimes you watch it happen to someone you love. In the case of loved ones, you don’t know whether you are trying to get something ugly and dark out of them, or whether you are trying to get them out of something ugly and dark. You don’t know whether to treat it more like an infectious disease, festering in their very soul or to think of it more like a cold steel trap in which they are stuck. It is a raging monster, no doubt, vicious and unrelenting, but it small enough to hide in the heart and huge enough to fight back.
And today’s story is a tale of when just such an entanglement gets unraveled in the blink of an eye, and The Evil inside the man shrieked as the jumbled mess came undone. I imagine The Evil was shrieking because it was essentially dying—there is no power in Evil without a human home in which to dwell, without a human soul on which to feed.
The Evil shrieked, and the man himself convulsed. Convulsed—in Greek, a medical word that refers to the spastic action of the stomach when retching. Now I hate throwing-up more than any kind of sick, but even I admit throwing up can be a relief when it alleviates the nausea. Some people find themselves so soul-sick they would give anything to just vomit the horror out and be done with it.
Jesus had simply said, “Be quiet,” which, in the Greek, also means, “Be still.” And then he said, “Come out of him.” I suppose he could have been speaking to the demon, saying “Be quiet. Quit speaking your vicious lies and your poisoned truths. Get out of this man and stop terrorizing him!” Or maybe, Jesus was speaking to the man, “Be still, quit fighting this monster. Take my hand, and step out from him, get away from its shadow. My light will guide you home.” Maybe, Jesus was speaking to the both of them, and it was his attentiveness to the both that made all the difference. Most people were too uncomfortable to address a crazy man and too afraid to address a demon, but Jesus was unruffled by either, so he looked them straight in the faces, in a way that said, “I see you. I see you both. Other people have made you out to be One—one hideous, twisted, half-of-a-person, but I can still see you, untangled and separate. There is a whole person underneath the mess, crying to be free, and there is also a monster, who is no match for my power, and I say, Come out from each other.”
I don’t know that it matters too much how each generation defines satan, or how precisely we diagnose demons. We’ve made advances in science and medicine, and those are worthy achievements we can embrace as times change. But what stays the same, what every generation of Christians still declare, is that Jesus drives out Evil. We find a thousand ways to say the same thing to every era—that Jesus is Bigger than Evil. That Jesus has the authority to speak to Evil. That Jesus is Power and Evil is only a leech. That Jesus is Creator and Evil is only a manipulator of created goods. That Jesus is Risen and Evil is only a failed assassin.
What was true about Jesus Way Back Then is true about Jesus Now—that whatever their ailment, Jesus find ways to speak to hurting people, to see beneath the chaos to the person underneath, and to call them out into the Light.
There is a woman who tells about her stay in the mental hospital as a teenager struggling with bulimia. Her ailment was an eating disorder, but there were all kinds of ailing patients. She says, “There was one man on our unit who spoke only in numbers. I ignored him at first . . . it’s hard to know what the appropriate response is to “Twenty-one ninety-six forty NINE?” But one day I decided to take a guess. “Fourteen?” I responded tentatively. I remember his face changing from empty to surprised to happy. Then back to empty, quickly. But I definitely saw happy, for a moment there. That taught me to try, at least once, to speak each person’s special language.”
If I were one of Jesus’ disciples, and he sent me out into the world to cast out demons in his name, I would protest, “What?! I don’t know how to do that.” But maybe Jesus would just smile at me and suggest, “Why don’t you start by really seeing people—the human being beneath the muddle. In your mind’s eye, separate the person from the monster that plagues them, and try to speak to them both, without fear. You won’t know how, but make your best guess, and be sure to speak my name into the midst. Your attentiveness alone will make a difference, and my name will cast out shadows. And if you can’t remember all of that, just look at people the same way I look at you, and you’ll do alright.”