Jesus was in enemy territory. He had left the Holy Land behind, and travelled across the Sea of Galilee to a haunt of demons and shades and blood enemies, an unholy land where a foreign and Godless people lived. And as if to drive home the point that an emissary from the God of Israel was not welcome there, at the very moment that Jesus set foot in that benighted land he was confronted by the border patrol of the forces of misery. It was just the kind of creature you would expect to find in an unclean place, it was a demon. Or rather it was a whole legion of demons that was infesting a man of that country. And the demon legion was mighty and uncontrollable. It walked naked beneath the blazing sun and lived amidst the tombs. It needed no possessions, bore no possessions except a ruined mass of shackles and torn metal chains as reminders that it could wrench free from any human attempts to subdue or control it.
The demon legion approached Jesus and the stage seemed set for a battle between the forces of heaven and the denizens of the abyss. But when the demon drew close to Jesus, close enough to touch his face, the demon threw itself down on the ground at Jesus’ feet and started to beg. It started to beg. It called on the name of Jesus, “Jesus, Son of the Most High God, I beg you do not torment me!” And Jesus was compassionate, he does not torment the demon but instead stands quietly to listen to what the demon will say. A second time: the uncontrollably powerful demon lying helpless at Jesus’ feet begs as piteously as any supplicant in the gospels, “I beg you do not send me back to the abyss.” And Jesus again shows compassion, he does not send the demon to the abysmal land of demons but listens for what the demon wants.
A third and final time the demon begs Jesus, pointing to a nearby herd of swine kept near the steep sea cliffs, “I beg you let me enter that herd of pigs.” And Jesus shows compassion again, seemingly content to grant each of the demon’s requests, content to allow the demon to do whatever it wished. The inexplicably contrite demon legion flew out from the man in one mass of spirit, entered into the herd of pigs and as one body charged toward the cliff edge, flinging themselves off the face of the earth like birds flying from a cage. The demons charged over a cliff to their destruction, seeking to be submerged forever beneath the waters fed by the river Jordan.
What is going on here? What started off looking like a cosmic throw down between good and evil, turned out instead to be a story of Jesus shining with compassion, a story almost about redemption, except that it’s about a demon. Why is this demon behaving like this, why does it beg Jesus for mercy and to be allowed to destroy itself along with the pigs? I think that when the demon saw Jesus, it understood full well who Jesus was. You see demons in the gospels can see who Jesus is so clearly. To them Jesus looks like a window of heaven itself standing in creation, a window in which they can see God’s power and love and mercy in Him just as plain as day. The demon called by name, and asked with despair: “Jesus, Son of the Most High God, what can there be between you and me”?
That is why the demon begged to not be sent back to the abyss, begged for its own undoing, to be allowed to cease to be a demon, even though the alternative was being nothing at all. The demon had seen God and known God, and could not go on being a demon any longer.
A strange story told well by Brother Luke’s gospel, to be sure. It is about the irresistible love of God able to convert even the demons. But what are we to make of it? What are we to take from it? I won’t make assumptions about others, but I don’t believe in true to life demons. Vile supernatural beings traipsing through the world wreaking havoc? I don’t believe that’s real and so I’m not afraid of that. But even so, demons are real. Demons are very real.
Let me try to tell you what I mean, because it is easy to be misunderstood when talking about the realm of the spiritual. So I would like to tell you one other thing about demons. In the old stories and the depths of human imagination, in order to have power over a demon, you had to know its name. You need silver bullets for werewolves, and wooden stakes for vampires, but with demons you always need the name. It’s always about the name. To know a demon’s name was to know its origin and its nature and therefore have power to banish it. In that way, demons have always been more like ideas than creatures. Demons are very much like ideas and so were named things like Asmodeus and Mammon and Abaddon, that is, revenge and greed and destruction. Those were their names.
I’m not afraid of goat footed men with pitchforks and red pajamas because they don’t exist, they’re not real. But revenge and greed and destruction? Those are real, and they are invested of a life of their own, and they are fearful. Those ancient and terrible demons traipse through this world doing as they please carrying the broken shackles and chains of every prior attempt to control them. In our own generation there is the shortsighted demon Asmodeus, that is, revenge. And revenge has flooded our prisons beyond capacity, changing penitentiaries with the lofty goal of reforming the human spirit into a nightmare morass of criminality, mental illness, cruelty, and recidivism. And then there is also that alluring and seductive demon Mammon, that is, greed. Greed has made slavery commonplace again, sanctioned not a congress but by currency with the children of poor countries sold to rich ones, the beauty and glory of human life reduced to the monetary value of labor and pleasure. And then there is blood-thirsty Abaddon, that is, destruction, that is, warfare. Warfare dresses up in saints robes, telling always to both sides that their war is just, promising always to both sides there will be peace and prosperity but delivering neither peace nor prosperity to anyone.
The woes of the world can seem immense, far greater than anything that we with our small clutch of years could ever hope to exorcise. These would seem demons for Jesus to face, not me. Greed and warfare and revenge have been around much longer than me and surely the height of wisdom would seem to be to steer clear of them, not confront them. They could wrench apart any fetters I placed upon them. But we need not despair, because it was never our power which exorcised demons. It was always the power of God. And the power of God is irresistible love and compassion, love and compassion that once known cannot be refused so that even demons catch one sight of and fling themselves into oblivion rather than oppose it.
It is not a mechanical thing to live by faith—one donation here means one fewer tragedy there, one good deed here inspires ten others there. To live by faith is to not worry that the sum of all that we can do seems incapable of achieving the loftiness of our goals. All we must do, all we can do to banish the great and age old demons of the world, is live with purity of mercy, and breadth of generosity, and depth of prayer. If we do that, it will be God who is at work in us, because we are not ultimately responsible for guiding the course of history to its conclusion. God is God and we are not. Our lives are like fine and precious thread, and God is the weaver of the new creation. And when war and greed and revenge and hatred and murder and deceit and chaos and hunger and all the demons that stalk creation have known God’s love bowed down before God with their noses pressed against oblivion, on that day we will leap from our tombs and be caught up in the great a glorious song of praise to God for all that She has done.