History is an epic struggle between good and evil, between truth and falsehood, between the forces that enhance human life and the forces that seek to diminish and destroy it. The good news of the Christian gospel is that our God, the Almighty God we know and worship in Jesus Christ, is fully on the side of what is good and right, and totally against the side of what is evil and wrong. God is the summit of the forces that support and boost human life, and totally opposed to the forces that subvert and warp human life. God, through Christ, the Scriptures, and the saints, illuminates the world with grace and truth. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5).
In today’s Gospel reading from Matthew (Mat 8:28-9:1), we have a glimpse into that unceasing war, visible and invisible, between good and evil. The Gospel tells how Jesus performed an exorcism and liberated two men from the grasp of the demonic powers. Interestingly, Mark and Luke choose to write that there was just one man. This is not unusual because the Evangelists worked by memory and the stories of Jesus were told and retold by word of mouth for more than a generation before being committed to writing.
As Matthew tells the story, Jesus was on the east side of the Sea of Galilee, the land of Gadara, inhabited primarily by non-Jews. He had gone there with the disciples, looking for a few days of quiet away from the crowds. But the battle with evil knows no pause. Two fierce Gadarenes, distraught and dangerous, came out of caves used for tombs to confront Jesus. Known to be violent, no one dared pass that way. The demons cried out through the mouths of the men: “What have You to do with us, O Son of God? Have you come to torment us before the time?” The demons perceived the identity of Jesus. They called Him Son of God, recognizing His authority. But this was no act of faith. They neither believed in Him, nor much less repented and accepted Him as Lord. Their words were words of consternation and fear. Why was the Son of God here? Had He come to judge and punish them before the expected time of their future final judgment?
The land of Gadara was mostly Gentile territory. Some Gentiles raised pigs, something forbidden to Jews by the Mosaic law. The demons, anticipating the exorcism, begged Jesus to allow them to enter into the swine. He did so and the pigs, now possessed by the evil spirits and in a frenzy, rushed over the steep bank and drowned in the waters. The caretakers of the pigs fled to the town with the startling news. The citizens came out to meet Jesus, and instead of welcoming Jesus and rejoicing at the healing of the two men, they asked Him to leave. The Son of God was in their neighborhood and He was told to go away!
The details of this story are perplexing. Why did Jesus allow the demons to destroy the poor pigs? Is this not an example of cruelty to animals? And the citizens of that region, who were Gentiles, did they not have a right to raise swine and so be angry about the loss of their property? These are fair questions to ask and yet no interpreter have ever provided clear answers. The frenzied death of the pigs underscores the destructive powers of the demonic. It also demonstrates that the demons were truly and tangibly cast out of the men and that the men were truly freed of the evil spirits. The loss of property of the pigs is more difficult to explain ethically. Perhaps it was unavoidable in the war against evil, a question that our limited understanding of the ways and purposes of God cannot answer.
The most important question is about the act of exorcism itself. Do demons really exist? Was Jesus an exorcist? According to the testimony of the Gospels, the answer is yes on both counts. Jesus believed that demons existed. Exorcisms were a distinct part of His ministry. His avowed enemies too conceded that Jesus truly cast out demons, but that He did so in collusion with Satan. They accused Him of being Himself possessed by Satan, a horrible blasphemy. They said He used the power of Satan to cast out Satan’s demons. Jesus replied: “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.” And He added: “All sins will be forgiven . . . but whoever blasphemes the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of eternal sin, for they had said, ‘He has an unclean spirit’” (Mark 3:22-30). The frightful blasphemy was the accusation that Christ was possessed by Satan and that He healed by the power of Satan and not the power of the Holy Spirit of God.
Specific accounts of exorcisms, such as that of the two demoniacs, are very few in the Gospels. But general references to many exorcisms by Jesus are frequent. Christ often prayed over people to be healed and to be freed of demonic presence. Exorcisms were essential to Jesus’ saving work. They were acts of compassion by which evil spirits were cast out, and people were restored to health, their full potential as desired by God. Exorcisms were part of Christ’s battle to defeat the powers of Satan and the demons. Christ the King had the power of God’s kingdom, the power of the Holy Spirit, to push back the frontiers of the kingdom of Satan, to bring the light of grace and truth to the world. The Book of Hebrews states that Christ came into the world “to destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and to deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage” (Heb 1214-15).
Today, many people influenced either by science or by secular indifference to spiritual matters deny the existence of demons. If people deny the very existence of God, they ought of course to deny the existence of Satan too. There are a few who, strangely enough, believe in Satan and promote his work, and yet refuse to accept the existence and authority of God! What foolishness, what madness, what deceit, itself inspired and promoted by demons.
What no one can deny, however, is the presence and magnitude of evil in history and in the lives of every generation of human beings. The wars, the epidemics, the oppression, the killing of people to grab their lands, the enslavement of millions to exploit their labors, the incessant conflict and division in the pursuit of material things, the hatred and discord over social and political ideologies, the insane rabbit holes of conspiracy theories that darken the minds of people. Who can sufficiently recite the tragic story of human inhumanity to human beings and to all the living creatures of God? This horrid mass of evil cannot be accountable only in terms of evolution, of our DNA, and of evolutionary psychology. We should not be too sure of ourselves, too presumptuous about our contemporary knowledge, to dismiss the demonic as outdated, to think we are in no need of God’s care and power against the mystery of universal and personal evil in the world.
Christ has given us exactly the criterion by which to guide our thoughts and lives. He said: “Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? So, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears evil fruit. A good tree cannot bear evil fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit” (Mat 7:16-18). These words of Jesus apply equally to persons and to all institutions and social structures. This includes Christians, to us too, within God’s Holy Church. Remember, Judas was one of the disciples and spent three years in the company of our Lord. But what Satan cannot do, cannot produce or promote for long is faith in a loving God, the intrinsic goodness of creation and humanity, Christ’s ways of generosity, humility, forgiveness, peacemaking and healing between people, communities and nations. All these blessings, these holy fruits, are the work not of demons but of the Holy Spirit.
Wherever there is arrogance and strife, wherever there is greed and exploitation, where ever there is hatred and vindictiveness, lying and suppression of truth, deceit and injustice; wherever people are mindless, frenzied, and hedonistic, there is the presence of the demonic, the work of Satan, always seeking to corrupt and destroy the beautiful world of human beings and of all creatures who are the work of God. We cannot serve two masters, Satan and Christ. A Christian devoted to Christ and striving to grow in Him cannot lie or cheat or deliberately hurt another person or any creature of God; cannot long withhold forgiveness and hold grudges; cannot live in hostility and anger toward others. On the contrary, a Christian rejoices in truthfulness and justice, celebrates love and forgiveness among all people, and always prays and strives for understanding and peace in the Church and society. A good tree naturally produces good fruit.
The residents of Gadara asked Christ to depart from their land. Many in our society, for their own reasons do the same, because they do not want the light of Christ to shine upon their lies and intrigues. “The light has come to the world and people loved the darkness rather than the light, lest their deeds be exposed” (John 3:19). We Christians need to be mindful to guard against our own wrong thoughts and wrong conduct toward family members and toward all people, for such things are also ways of saying to Christ: go away. We need to invite Christ to be with us and to stay with us always. He is our Guide and Protector against the evil powers. Christ has defeated Satan. He has overcome the demonic forces. Although they remain active, waiting their final judgment, we need not be afraid of them. Scripture states that the Lord God who is in us and among us is stronger than the Evil One who is in the world (1 John 4:4). “Let us “be watchful, stand firm in [our] faith, be courageous, be strong. Let all that [we] do be done in love” (1 Cor 16:13). Amen.