June 23, 2013
Calmed Minds and Seas: Exorcism as God's Victory Over Oppression
Biblical scholar Jeffrey Johns nicely sums up a key insight into the text on the Gerasene demoniac: "The miracle story is not just about a personal exorcism. It is about the promise of God's ability to defeat and re-order the disordered powers that afflict individuals and communities" (The Meaning in the Miracles, 91).
If you entered "location of exorcism in Luke 8:26ff and Mark 5:1-20" in Google Maps, at least three pin drops would pop up. Gergesa, Gerasa, and Gedara. Mark (and Luke in following his lead) chooses Gerasa. It had become famous as the location of a Jewish revolt brutally put down by the Roman Army in 67 A.D. Vespasian's general, Lucius Annius, slaughtered 1,000 rebels who were besieged in Gerasa and then destroyed it and surrounding villages.
The demoniac is called by the Latin name "Legion," referring to a company of up to 6,000 Roman soldiers. This strongly suggests that Mark linked the exorcism of the evil powers occupying the demoniac with acts of Roman oppression. The demons' preference for pigs is because of the animal's negative association in Judaism. The association of a Roman legion with a herd of pigs was a priceless piece of irony (Jeffrey John, The Meaning in the Miracles, 86).
Luke, following Mark's lead, identifies Roman military might with the supernatural powers that are behind all systems of violent oppression. Today we would want to refer the demoniac for immediate treatment for multiple schizophrenism, but here possession is a symbol of the oppression of one culture by another. Personal exorcism becomes symbolic of corporate liberation from oppression. The exorcism breaks the demonic spell that keeps the individual dependent upon the dominant power (86). As we hear the hooves of the pigs clicking toward the sea, the message is that even the power of Rome will ultimately be no match for the liberating power of God in Christ.
The same dynamic underlies the calming of the sea, which precedes this exorcism in Mark as well as Luke. Some scholars believe that the two exorcisms, taken together, mirror elements of Psalm 65:7 where the psalmist condemns the chaotic, violent Gentile powers while seeking for them to be calmed and included within the blessings of Israel (88). Psalm 65:7 says, "You silence the roaring of the seas, the roaring of their waves, the tumult (or madness) of the peoples." The psalmist praises God's power to calm the seas, primordial metaphor for chaos, and to overcome the power of the furious Gentiles who were threatening Israel. The two stories of exorcism—the Gerasene Demoniac and the miracle of the calming of the sea—speak to Jesus' power and authority to liberate the world from oppression and chaos.
The Demons Know His Name
At the beginning of the gospel of Mark, Jesus enters a synagogue in Capernaum where he encounters a "man with an unclean spirit." "What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God." The synagogue demon uses a Jewish title for God and God's emissary. The demons recognize Jesus when others do not.
Here in Luke 8, in Gentile territory, the demon shouts the very same questions at Jesus we just heard in Mark 1. "What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?" Here the demon uses a Gentile mode of addressing Israel's God. He continues, "I beg you, do not torment me."
Knowing your opponent's name was regarded as a means of establishing dominance. The demons seek to establish dominance over Jesus by stating his name. Jesus demands their name and they submit to him.
Jesus Demands to Know their Names
We might well ask ourselves, "Can we accurately name the demons in our own lives and that of our community?" One could interpret that question with regard to personal struggles as well as corporate struggles with temptations to allow our domination by unjust and destructive attitudes and practices or to exercise domination over others. At times, we are used by other individuals and groups/institutions for their own good, and sometimes we use others.
The next logical question is: "Do our 'demons' recognize the authority of Jesus to evict and eventually destroy them? Do we believe that he has that authority to evict and eventually destroy our demons?"
A common theme among exorcism stories at the time of Jesus was that demons hate to be homeless. They hate to be moved about. That is exactly Jesus' plan, to discombobulate them and evict them and leave them homeless wanderers.
The demons have good reason to fear that Jesus will torment them. He most certainly will. They flee because they cannot withstand his authoritative command. And they cannot stand to be in his presence. His goodness is an agony to them. Proverbs 13:19b rightly warns us: "To turn away from evil is an abomination to fools."