St. Luke 8:26-39
Sometimes we have heard the same story so many times that we take it for granted, especially if it is set in a land far away and a time long ago. Perhaps that is our reaction when we hear today’s familiar gospel reading about Jesus Christ casting demons out of the miserable man who lived in a cemetery and was out of his mind. The Savior sent the demons into a herd of pigs who then jumped into the water and drowned. Then the man was himself again and his neighbors were so amazed and terrified by what happened that they asked the Lord to leave their town. I do not know about you, but I have never seen anything quite like that with my own eyes. So we may be tempted to think that this account has nothing to do with us, for we are not possessed by demons, living among the tombs, or watching pigs jump to their deaths in a lake. What on earth could this gospel reading have to do with us?
In order to figure that out, we should remember that the gospels do not simply give us news reports about the activities of Jesus Christ during the first century. No, they are narrative portraits of the good news of His salvation. The word “gospel” means “good news,” and the Church has recognized the four gospels in the New Testament canon as true proclamations of who our Savior is and what His healing of our humanity means and looks like. When we read or hear the gospels, the point is not to satisfying our curiosity about what happened two thousand years ago. It is, instead, to invite us to participate personally in the life of the One whose story is told in them. In fact, the gospels call us to become participants in the ongoing story of the Lord’s saving work in the world. His Kingdom is the fulfillment, healing, and blessing of all people and all reality, regardless of historical period. Just as much as He brought deliverance from evil to that poor demon-possessed man, He brings salvation to us also.
Even though we are not as obviously controlled by evil as he was, we all have too much in common with that unfortunate person. If we are honest with ourselves, we will all acknowledge that temptation gets the better of us with some regularity and leads us to think, act, and speak in ways that fall short of being in the likeness of God to which we are called. If it is hard for us to understand that, think about the pigs in the story. We have probably all at least seen pictures of pigs gorging themselves on their food. When our family visited friends in Minnesota summer before last, they took me into the one of their pig barns that held over a thousand of them. I was warned to be careful not to fall down because the pigs will try to eat anything. I remember seeing one pig without a tail and was told that another pig had probably chewed it off. So I was very careful not to fall down that day and emerged unscathed.
Too often, however, we get right in there with the pigs. We allow ourselves to be overcome with passions and self-centered desires to the point that we have as little control over ourselves as a bunch of hungry hogs eating slop from their trough. Whether it is anger, pride, lust, envy, greed, dwelling on the wrongs of others, or another sin, we routinely diminish ourselves by giving into temptation to the point that we do not act like the beloved sons and daughters of God we are created to be.
I know that some will say that there is nothing more important than being true to yourself, which they understand to mean that we should always say and do whatever feels right at the moment. The problem, however, is that our sickened spiritual state is not the true human state of being. It is, instead, the way of Adam and Eve who brought sin and death into the world by their disobedience to God. Ever since, there has been a war within the soul of every human being, as well as a strong temptation to accept our corrupt condition as good and normal. So we have all made pleasure and contentment in whatever form we pursue them our highest good, whether that is the perverse satisfaction of controlling, condemning, or harming someone or as subtle as simply putting our own preferences before the needs of others or what we know God wants us to do.
The problem is that to be true to ourselves in that way is really to be false to ourselves. It is really to live out the lie that we are nothing but pleasure and satisfaction-seeking individuals whose horizons extend no further than those of hungry pigs waiting for their next feeding. Like the demon-possessed man, we lose our identity when we do that. He said that his name was “Legion” because he was filled with so many evil spirits. Too often, we could say the same thing because of the many disordered desires that dominate our lives and distort our true identity.
We have a way out of that kind of existence, however, because Christ is the Second Adam who as the God-Man makes us participants in His divinized humanity. He heals, blesses, and restores us as unique persons in His image and likeness to the point that we become participants in His divine nature by grace. So to be truly human in Him is not to be controlled and distorted by sin to the point that we are no longer truly ourselves. It is, instead, to have control over our desires such that we direct them all to God and find fulfillment in ways that draw us more fully into the life of the Kingdom even as we live and breathe in this world.
The formerly demon-possessed man came to himself again and regained his true identity because of Christ’s salvation. The same will be true of us when we recognize our self-centered desires, weaknesses, and love for our bad habits as the temptations that they are. It is no sin to be tempted, but it is sinful to accept these distorted inclinations as the truth of who we are by giving in to them. Every time that we do so, we damage and distort ourselves at least a bit. We embrace spiritual sickness instead of health. Just as that unhappy state of the demon-possessed man had become his “new normal,” we easily get too comfortable with the presence of evil in our lives. Of course, none of this is as dramatic as a wild man living in a cemetery or the sight of a herd of pigs jumping into a lake. But the consequences for our spiritual health and the true joy of our lives will be just as real. Namely, we risk losing ourselves—our souls, our lives-- out of an addiction to getting satisfaction on our own terms. If that is how we live, we might as well be living in a cemetery, isolated from others, and under the control of demons. Truth be told, that is precisely who we will be become if we follow that path.
Of course, that is not how any of us want to end up. But just as a recovering alcoholic has to learn not to take even one drink and someone who quits smoking has to learn not to have even one cigarette, each and every one of us has to learn how to reject temptation as soon as it rears its ugly head. In other words, we have to be on guard, with our eyes wide open to the destructive personal consequences of the addictions, bad habits, and passions that have taken root in our lives. And even though it may seem impossibly difficult, we have to make war against them, refusing to give in to their familiar and comfortable attraction. I know that we sometimes think it will kill us to refuse to indulge in this or that desire for pleasure or satisfaction of thought, word, or deed, whatever it may be. But as we all know from the times that we have successfully resisted temptation, it is not really going to kill us to do so. To give up on the struggle out of fear is also a temptation that we must resist.
When we despair of our ability to refrain from sin and fall short again and again, that is when we are in the perfect position to cultivate the deep humility of the Jesus Prayer. It is also why we should call on the mercy and aid of the Lord from our hearts as often as we possibly can, every day of our lives. And if we ever think that His mercy and power are not able to bring us healing and strength in relation to our spiritual maladies, let us remember that poor man possessed by demons, living among the tombs, who had lost his true identity. Our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ set him free and restored him to his true self as a beloved child of God. He gave him his life back. He will do precisely the same for us when, in our weakness and despair, we turn to Him in humility for the healing that only the Second Adam can bring to those created in His image and likeness.