Today’s Gospel, from St Matthew is a fairly well known account of a healing – a healing, not in the usual physical sense but a healing of the spirit. It concerns two men who are possessed by demons. Jesus is in the country of the Gergazenes, and these men live in the local cemetery among the tombs. They are described as being exceedingly fierce so that no one could pass along that way. The land of the Gergazenes is actually located to the east of the Lake of Galilee. Nazareth, where Jesus was brought up is several miles to the west.
St Matthew has little to say about Jesus’s visit to this area except that during his crossing of the Lake there was a storm which scared his disciples, although Jesus himself was asleep. When they awoke him, he stilled the storm. After the incident in today’s Gospel they got back into the boat and crossed back to the other side, where they set out for the few miles to Jesus’s home town, Nazareth.
So, let us look briefly at the important incident that occurred while they were in the region. I think that we may assume that Jesus went in full knowledge of what was to happen, although the disciples would have had no inkling and in the event were probably as scared as the local people when these two men appeared.
The brief conversation that takes place is related in the Gospel, and it is clear from the context that it is a conversation between Jesus himself and the demons. In St Mark’s version of this incident Jesus asks the demon its name. In reply, the demon gives his name as “Legion”, for “we are many”. This is left out of Matthew’s account, which we read this morning, although the assumption seems to be that there are more than one – or two, one for each man.
Note in the account that Jesus says nothing at first, but the demons challenge him, “What have we to do with you, Jesus, Son of God. Have you come here to torment us before the time?” Then, we are told that there was a herd of many swine, or pigs, feeding not far away. The demons begged Jesus, if he was going to cast them out of the two men, to allow them to enter the swine. Jesus’s reply was a single word, “Go.”, and the swine rushed violently down the slope into the sea, where they drowned and presumably the demons were cast adrift – homeless.
Perhaps I should point out at this point in case you did not know that the Jews were not permitted to keep pigs, and these were presumably Jews Pigs were unclean creatures and rendered those having contact with them also ritually unclean. Nevertheless they went to the local town where presumably the owners of the pig lived and told them the whole story.
And the whole city came out to meet Jesus. Now usually we might assume that they had come out to hear his teaching. Not a bit of it. They begged him to depart from their region. So he did and crossing the sea he came to his own city. Unfortunately in Matthew’s account, that we heard today, we hear nothing more of the two men who were healed, but as a footnote I will just say something about the accounts of the same incident in Mark’s and Luke’s Gospels.
Both Mark and Luke speak of one man, but in other respects the three accounts are identical. However, they add an extra. When Jesus and his disciples board the boat to cross back to the other side the healed man begs to be allowed to go with him.
Jesus will not allow this, but sends him home to his family and friends to share with them the great things the Lord has done for him. “And he departed,” says Mark, and “began to proclaim in the Decapolis (the Ten Cities) all that the Lord had done for him.” What else could he do, having benefited from this great miracle, and been set free from these evil spirits?
When the time came, after Pentecost, and the coming of the Holy Spirit to the Apostles we may well assume that, as the word spread out from Jerusalem and one or more of the apostles visited the east coast area of Galilee this man may have joined forces with them in their mission.
Demonic possession, although relatively rare, still occurs although it will not be recognised as such particularly by psychiatrists who might well refer to “psychosis”. However we are all to some extent open to temptations of various kinds and we need to be aware of their source.
Most of us think that every thought that enters our heads is ours alone. However, that is not necessarily the case. The evil spirits, or demons are subtle. They may plant in our minds judgemental, angry, lustful, and other sinful thoughts, and it is all too easy to act upon them, and to justify the action.
So how do we defeat the demons, and satanic temptations? The Name of Jesus is more powerful than any demon. We have only to think of this morning’s Gospel reading – or any other similar encounter between Jesus and evil powers to see how they hate and fear him but are nevertheless bound to obey him. The Fathers found a way of dealing with these situations. That was to centre their thoughts on the Name of Jesus which effectively, they discovered, blocked out any other thoughts or temptations potentially leading to sinful actions.
The Jesus Prayer is one of the most ancient forms of Orthodox Prayer which originated among holy men in the Deserts. There they found that, without divine protection, the demons had free reign. This prayer varies, but is essentially the same, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” There are shorter forms such as, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me”, or even, “Jesus, mercy”. In praying this prayer, over and over again we are not only confronting the demons with the Name of Jesus, but we proclaim to them the He is Lord of our lives, and that they have no power over us.