This powerful story of Jesus confronting evil is fascinating. If we had started the Scripture reading earlier in the chapter you would understand that Jesus and the disciples have just survived a terrible storm in a small fishing boat. The storm was blowing them in the direction of what they understood to be Satan’s territory. In their minds the demonic forces around them were trying to destroy them. When they land in this forbidden territory, the first thing that happens is that they are met by a man who is full of demons. Their name is their number — Legion, a thousand, give or take a few. The naive disciples who had never wandered far from home were feeling very far from home and threatened by their surroundings. The people of the Gadarenes were people who raised pigs — something that was “unclean” and forbidden for any Jew. They would not go near a pig, let alone tend them or eat them. But here they were surrounded by unclean pigs and a filthy, naked, raving lunatic possessed by unclean spirits. Not exactly the day at the beach they had planned.
This was a man whom the people of the area had tried to restrain, but they were unable to keep him under control. They had bound him with chains and posted a guard over him, but he broke the chains, and who knows what he did to his guards. He lived in the caves of the area — which also served as the tombs of the dead. No one wanted to go near the tombs, but made the tombs his home. Yet, when Jesus walked onto the scene, this wild and uncontrollable man became as gentle as a house pet. He ran up to Jesus and fell at his feet asking for mercy. Jesus delivered the man from the demons which had him in bondage, and the townspeople came to find the man sitting subdued at Jesus’ feet, fully clothed and talking like any rational person. The very one who had terrorized them was weak and helpless Jesus’ presence, and was eventually healed, made free and whole. They had not seen him like this for years — if ever. But in spite of this obvious miracle — this great good which Jesus had brought about in this man’s life — the people were afraid of Jesus and asked him to leave.
What a great story, full of surprises and a dramatic ending. Several truths present themselves in this story of Jesus’ encounter with evil. The first obvious truth is this: Evil is real. The temptation for us who are often still caught up in a modernist worldview is that we have explanations for evil. We read this story and we say, “Obviously this man was psychotic. [And the evil in his life had made him psychotic.] They just did not know about things like dissociative identity disorder, a bipolar condition, schizophrenic episodes, anti-social personality disorders or a diagnosis of being oppositionally defiant. If only he had some modern psychotropic drugs. It was probably his psychotic rant that scared the pigs and made them run into the sea.” We want to place this man in one of these categories that we understand, because in a culture where the existence of evil is denied, it is hard, if not impossible, for us to comprehend the reality of evil. I was a psychology major in college and I love to study it, but I believe Psychology has become the new religion of America. Think about it. We look to psychology to understand ourselves and life, to find healing, and to give us a purpose for life. It tells us how to live, and defines right and wrong behavior. So, because many consider it to be a science, when it comes to choosing between a biblical understanding for things or a psychological explanation , even Christians often choose the psychological model. I’m not saying that these psychological conditions do not exist, just that we sometimes allow the psychological model to trump the biblical model, and use psychological theory to explain away evil behavior and to dismiss people from personal responsibility for their behavior.
We are a culture that does not want to admit that evil exists, especially in people. There is always an explanation or rationalization for the things people do. Immediately after the Columbine school shootings we were trying to analyze Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. We did the same thing with the BTK killer and many others. What made these people do what they did? I read any number of theories, none of which addressed the issue of personal evil.
But this story in the life of Jesus makes evil very personal and real. The demonic spirits within the man did several things that a psychological condition cannot explain. First of all, they recognized the divinity of Jesus even though they had never seen him. This can only be explained in that they came from the realm of the supernatural and knew him intimately. Jesus talked to the demons and had a conversation with them. They told him their name and made a request of him. They understood that he was a danger to them and could return them to the Abyss. The reality of Satan and demonic activity is matter-of-factly talked about throughout the New Testament without apology. This is a part of our story in the Christian faith. Evil is never denied or explained away. It is always presented as a danger to avoid. The apostle Peter wrote, “Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). C. S. Lewis warned: “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about demons. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.” Both errors are equally defective. Whether we see evil nowhere or behind every bush, both are a distortion. We should not make too much or too little of it.
Evil destroys us. Sin puts us sin in terrible bondage and Satan becomes our master. The Bible says, “Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone to obey him as slaves, you are slaves to the one whom you obey — whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness?” (Romans 6:16). These demons had this man in bondage. They took away his dignity and sense of identity. He was naked and living in tombs. He was an outcast of society. The demons had taken over his personality. His name became the demons’ name. Jesus was not confronting imaginary evil, it was real. We make a serious mistake when we deny the existence of evil, and here is why: When we believe that evil does not exist, we become blind to it. When evil is dismissed as unreal, good becomes irrelevant. Good is only understood in relation to evil. If nothing is evil, then nothing is good. We are seeing that in our culture. There is no such thing as evil or sin, and as a consequence we have no concept of what is good. In fact, good has become evil. A teacher cannot read from a Bible. A federal judge in Sacramento has just pronounced the pledge of allegiance pronounced evil (say unconstitutional), because it talks of “one nation under God”. The gay lifestyle is celebrated while those who say that homosexual practice is wrong are vilified and even prosecuted. When we lose our concept of sin, then nothing is wrong and the right becomes wrong. When this happens we are in danger of losing our moral sanity. G. K. Chesterton stated that when we take away the supernatural, what we are left with is the unnatural.
There is evil, and there are people who are personally involved in evil at many levels. But the second important truth of this story is that: Jesus reaches out to radically evil people. Be sure that Jesus and the disciples ending up at the Gadarenes was no accident. This is exactly where Jesus intended to go. He knew there was a man who needed to be delivered from the evil that bound him. He sought him out. We might expect the Son of God to be horrified and repulsed by those who were evil. We would not be surprised if he shunned them. But instead, we find him seeking them out. He travels across the Sea of Galilee just to find and deliver this man. It is an amazing trip and an amazing story. Just as amazing is his love for tax collectors and ladies of the night. They become some of his closest disciples. We are told that Mary Magdalene had seven demons driven out of her by Jesus (Mark 16:9). Adulterers and other notorious sinners are sought out and transformed by his forgiveness and life changing presence. We see the religious folk becoming Jesus’ enemies and moving away from him, while he is constantly going to the marginalized members of society: the blind, beggars, lame and poor.
I’m afraid that the people who call themselves Christian have not always followed Jesus’ example. We are often afraid of these people and don’t want to be around them, but Jesus sought them out. He never sugar coated their sin nor excused their behavior, but he did love them completely. He touched people the world would never touch. He spoke to people who were shunned by the decent people of society. He openly ate with sinners so that people said he was a drunkard and glutton (Luke 7:34). But he didn’t care; he was not afraid to be around them. I think he loved their honesty and transparency. They had no pretense. They were ready to admit who they were, and therefore were open to seeing their need of Jesus. Only when we think that we have no sin to be forgiven of is there no hope for us.
Jesus never left these people the same. There was always a genuine conversion in the lives of those who came to him. Real and permanent change happened. He never left them as he found them. The man in our story was certainly changed. And so were the many others throughout the New Testament whose lives were touched by him. They were those whom Paul spoke of when he wrote: “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient” (Ephesians 2:1-2). Evil was real in these people’s lives, but Jesus was realer still.
The third truth we discover in this story is: Radical conversion is necessary and available. The good news of Jesus is that real conversion, true and lasting conversion, is possible. In fact, if it is not a lasting conversion, it is not a real conversion. This is the conversion that all of us need. This is not just a story about a man long ago who was living in a tomb, the truth is we are all the man in the tomb — living in darkness, naked and helpless, bound by our sin. This is our personal story, as the hymns of the church recognize. The famous hymn “Rock of Ages” says,
Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to the cross I cling;
Naked, come to Thee for dress;
Helpless look to Thee for grace;
Foul, I to the fountain fly;Wash me, Savior, or I die.
When we become honest with God there begins to be some hope for a true conversion in us. As long as we pretend to have our act all together, as long as we pretend to be clothed and in our right mind, we cannot find the deliverance Jesus wants to bring. We might be educated and dressed in the latest styles and still be in bondage to some evil or taking trips to the dark side.
When Sue and I were in college, the pastor of our church was a tremendous influence in our lives. He wrote books which became best sellers. He became known all over the nation and was a sought after speaker. He retired with great honors and continued to teach in seminary. But on a Sunday morning this past July, at 83-years-of-age, he returned to that college town and walked to the front of the church, which he at one time had pastored, and confessed to the people that while he was there, he had had a sexual relationship with a woman in the community which lasted for several years. I have to tell you that my former pastor’s sin really rocked me. I would never have dreamed he was capable of doing something like that, especially at the same time he was preaching and speaking around the country on the sacredness of marriage.
The reason that this shook me is that I felt very vulnerable. I realized that if it could happen to him, it could happen to anyone — it could happen to me. It put me at the feet of Jesus in a new way. If for one moment I begin to think that I would never do anything like that, I am not be taking my personal potential for evil seriously. When I think I am insulated from evil, I am never more susceptible to its influence and power over me. The longer I am a Christian, the more I understand my own potential for evil. One of the things that this pastor admitted in his statement to the church was that pride is what brought him down. He had too much confidence in himself and not enough respect for the power of evil. He thought he was above the fray. He believed he could get by with it. Each of us have to remain honest, humble and leaning on the grace and strength of God moment by moment. It is how a conversion becomes a radical and lasting conversion.
Our culture takes evil and sin rather casually, but the Bible addresses it seriously. Jesus taught us to pray: “Deliver us from evil” (Matthew 6:13). In the book of James we read: “Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up” (James 4:7-10).
This encounter with Jesus is not just a nice exchange of greetings. There is a radical change in outlook, purpose and direction in one’s life. We cannot remain the same if we have really come into contact with Jesus. If you are living a life that is indistinguishable from non-Christians, you need to ask yourself if you have truly had a conversion. The Bible says, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” (2 Corinthians 5:17).
Fred Craddock, who taught at Candler School of Theology, Emory University, once said: “To give my life for Christ appears glorious. To pour myself out for others ... to pay the ultimate price of martyrdom — I’ll do it. I’m ready, Lord, to go out in a blaze of glory. We think giving our all to the Lord is like taking a $1,000 bill and laying it on the table — ‘Here’s my life, Lord. I’m giving it all.’ But the reality for most of us is that he sends us to the bank and has us cash in the $1,000 for quarters. We go through life putting out 25 cents here and 50 cents there. Listen to the neighbor kid’s troubles instead of saying, ‘Get lost.’ Go to a committee meeting. Give a cup of water to a shaky old man in a nursing home. Usually giving our life to Christ isn’t glorious. It’s done in all those little acts of love, 25 cents at a time. It would be easy to go out in a flash of glory; it’s harder to live the Christian life little by little over the long haul.”
That’s radical conversion. It is being faithful when no one cares and no one notices. It is spending our 25 cents doing the right thing when no one is watching — when we could have easily given into the wrong thing. It is being faithful in the mundane and ordinariness of everyday life, when it may have been more exciting to do something else, or give in to laziness by doing nothing at all. It is being faithful to God when it doesn’t seem to matter. It is doing the right thing even in the small things. It is being a person of character when everyone else is simply pleasing themselves. It is being willing to stand out when everyone else conforms. This is the proof that we have encountered the living Christ. It is the proof that there has been a radical change in our lives and that we will never be the same again. It is the radical conversion that marks us as disciples of Jesus.
Rodney J. Buchanan
September 18, 2005
Mulberry St. UMC
Mount Vernon, OH
Questions for September 21, 2005
1. Do you believe there is a denial of the existence of evil in our culture? If so, why is this so?
2. How do we explain evil today?
3. How was evil seen in the New Testament, or specifically in the story of the demon-possessed man delivered by Jesus?
4. If we were to take evil seriously, how would it change our approach to understanding and dealing with human behavior?
5. How did Jesus respond to radically evil people in the New Testament?
6. How has the church often responded to these people? What should our response be?
7. When Jesus encountered people there was permanent change. Have we stopped believing that real, radical conversion can happen?
8. Why do you believe some people seem to float in and out of the Christian life?
9. What can keep this from happening?
10. Take a careful look at the things that could potentially make you fall away. Make these a matter of serious, penitential prayer.