This blog provides a meditation on the Episcopal daily readngs along with a headline from world news:
GAS PLANT HOSTAGES SPEAK OF TRAUMATIC DAYS
Jesus Heals the Gerasene Demoniac
5They came to the other side of the lake, to the country of the Gerasenes.*2And when he had stepped out of the boat, immediately a man out of the tombs with an unclean spirit met him.3He lived among the tombs; and no one could restrain him any more, even with a chain;4for he had often been restrained with shackles and chains, but the chains he wrenched apart, and the shackles he broke in pieces; and no one had the strength to subdue him.5Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones.6When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and bowed down before him;7and he shouted at the top of his voice, ‘What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.’8For he had said to him, ‘Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!’9Then Jesus* asked him, ‘What is your name?’ He replied, ‘My name is Legion; for we are many.’10He begged him earnestly not to send them out of the country.11Now there on the hillside a great herd of swine was feeding;12and the unclean spirits* begged him, ‘Send us into the swine; let us enter them.’13So he gave them permission. And the unclean spirits came out and entered the swine; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the lake, and were drowned in the lake.
14 The swineherds ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came to see what it was that had happened.15They came to Jesus and saw the demoniac sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, the very man who had had the legion; and they were afraid.16Those who had seen what had happened to the demoniac and to the swine reported it.17Then they began to beg Jesus* to leave their neighbourhood.18As he was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed by demons begged him that he might be with him.19But Jesus* refused, and said to him, ‘Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.’20And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him; and everyone was amazed.
The Whole Armour of God
10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power.11Put on the whole armour of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.12For our* struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.13Therefore take up the whole armour of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm.14Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness.15As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.16With all of these,* take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one.17Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
18 Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints.19Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel,*20for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak.
These two passages illuminate each other. The author of Ephesians urges his readers to fight against rulers, authorities, cosmic powers of darkness, spiritual forces of evil. What are they? Isn’t this kind of language an embarrassment to the 21st century believer? Or can we translate it into something meaningful?
I think we can. Both psychology and sociology talk of transpersonal influences and determinants on individual and communal life. The psychological condition of co-dependency for example, means that two people depend on each other in ways that may be destructive to one or the other or both. They do not consciously choose this relationship but are swayed by it. Or take the mechanism by which an unscupulous government persuades the richest section of the population that their personal interest coincides with the national interest, allowing them to become unashamedly aggressive in pursuit of goals of which they would otherwise have been ashamed. Such people are not only dupes of government but beneficiaries of the power of patriotism. These examples show that actions can be influenced by transpersonal “forces” which are poorly understood by the actors, just as much as by conscious decision.
In first century Palestine, these would have been understood as “spiritual powers.” Jewish people thought of many of these as the power of false Gods. These beings were themselves unreal but given spiritual power by their worshippers. The realm of the “unclean” which included many aspects of ordinary life as well as the more extraordinary realms of illness and death, was considered to have spiritual power. For the author of Ephesians the main spiritual forces of darkness would have been the religious, cultural and political idols of the Roman Empire, from the influence of cults to the worship of Caesar. Paul described these powers as being instrumental in the death of Christ as well as conquered by him on the cross.
There’s no reason to think that the biblical way of understanding these factors of human existence is any less useful than ours. Indeed their way may have fostered a common wisdom about such factors which is absent from our cultures today.
The story of the demon-possessed man in the Decapolis is a good example of Jesus’ battle against spiritual forces of evil. The man is isolated from ordinary society ( he would be designated unclean), bereft of self-understanding, and driven to harm himself. He is an object of fear. Jesus faces the forces of evil and demands their name (to have the name of one’s opponent is have power over him). The man answers, according to most translations, “My name is Legion” This is interpreted simply as indicating possession by many spirits. But if so, why does the man use a very particular word denoting a large detachment of the Roman army? The man in fact tells Jesus, “I’m the Roman Army.” In our terms he has internalised the power and violence of the army which has conquered his land. Its brutality is no longer outside him, but inside. (Think of a whole society like Cambodia, still traumatised by the Pol Pot regime, or the suffering of many Afghan war veterans in the UK and USA). Jesus is able to confront the evil without fear, and out of compassion for the man, to expel it from his life. He, the Son of God, has come to liberate human beings from the evil that afflicts them.
Mark’s source has added a piece of cruel comedy in which Jesus allows the Roman demons to enter a herd of pigs (maybe a symbol of unclean Gentile conquerors), which then drowns itself.
The nature of evil is poorly understood in common wisdom today. The word itself is more or less reserved for acts of terrorism or crime. “Evil came to this town today” someone said after the Newtown school shootings. The implication of this way of speaking is that evil is exceptional, arriving through our enemies or an isolated criminal. In the biblical view evil is pervasive, invasive and captivating. God is engaged in battle against it and asks human beings to join the battle and to share his weapons. We have much to learn from a way of thinking which is foreign to us.