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What on earth is a demoniac?

July 1, 2015

Matthew 8:28-34                          Wednesday 1st July 2015

I’ve mentioned earlier this week how Jesus has set sail from His headquarters in Capernaum for His first visit to a gentile land – Gadara. This town was part of the Decapolis, the ‘ten cities’ to the East of the Sea of Galilee. This country was predominantly a gentile area, in fact there was quite a bit of pagan worship going on to the Roman god Zeus and local variants of the same god. We hear that two demoniacs came down the road towards Jesus from out of the tombs. From the story it sounds like ordinarily people would have been too frightened to go anywhere near that road because of the demoniacs.

Incidentally, do you believe people can be ‘possessed’ by evil spirits? Well I hope you do, because Jesus did, and to this day the Catholic Church is very clear on the issue. Today’s gospel describes an encounter between Jesus and two demoniacs.

What on earth is a demoniac? A demoniac is someone with ‘an unclean spirit’, someone who is ‘oppressed by the devil’.

We don’t tend to dwell too long on the subject of demons and exorcism nowadays in the Catholic Church, and part of this is because the idea of spiritual possession has been hijacked and reduced to exaggerated, gory horror films. It is also an area that requires great expertise and the gift of discernment give to us by the Holy Spirit, to discern whether a disturbed person is possessed by an evil spirit, which is much rarer than people often think or, more likely, that a person has disturbed behaviour because they are ill. For these reasons, the Church is a lot more discrete about such things today. We don’t want to over-dramatise things, which just feeds wild public imagination and makes it even worse for someone who needs help. But our reticence in these matters does not mean we don’t believe in possession by evil spirits, and neither does it mean that we under-estimate the power of evil spirits. It is highly dangerous to get involved in the meddling with evil spirits, because as we have seen in today’s gospel, they can move from one living thing to another.

So, back to the gospel. Two demoniacs approaching Jesus. Now, remember how the observant Jews had a great aversion to being made unclean by contact with dead bodies? This is a very tense situation. People would want to know how will Jesus react to this powerful demonic presence. The fact is, these fearsome creatures stopped and shouted at our Lord, indeed they call Him, correctly, ‘Son of God’ – unlike many ordinary people who came into contact with Jesus, these spirits immediately recognised Jesus for who He was. And they also knew that Jesus had power over them – they don’t know what He is going to do to them, but they ask ‘Have you come here to torture us before the time?’ We learn from this story how Jesus drove out the spirits from their victims, and the evil spirits entered a herd of pigs.

It is such release from possession by evil spirits that is called “exorcism”. If you look up the Catechism of the Catholic Church (paragraph 1673) you’ll see that the Church claims the authority to exorcise evil spirits based on Jesus’ example and the spiritual authority He entrusted to His Church. But the Church is very clear about the difference between evil spirits possessing a person and a person who is ill, especially someone who has a psychological illness. Mental diseases are a very different matter, and quite rightly the treatment of psychological problems is the concern of medical experts, not priests.

And the Canon Law of the Church, the rule book that advises and governs the Church on what and how we should do things properly, makes it absolutely clear that no-one is allowed to perform exorcisms unless he has the special and express permission of the local bishop. And the bishop is only allowed to give permission to a priest who ‘has piety, knowledge, prudence, and integrity of life’. Why? Because we are dealing here with some very powerful forces indeed, and you have to know what you’re dealing with.

In this story from Matthew’s gospel today we can see how Jesus effortlessly exerts His power over the evil spirits. It’s interesting to see the reaction of the local pig farmers. They are clearly not impressed that Jesus has sent their herd of pigs go over the cliff and drown, and they desperately want Jesus to leave the neighbourhood.

This idea of the evil spirits in those pigs drowning in the water fits with the Jewish idea that evil spirits existed under the water. This is part of the symbolism of our own baptism liturgy. The person being baptised is first anointed with holy olive oil to strengthen them for the battle they are going to have with evil; then the person being baptised is pushed under the water, where they confront evil, then rise again, born again, victorious in that fight against evil.

This idea of evil spirits existing in the depths of the water also gives us a further insight into why the Jews were so very frightened of being at sea. During that storm on the Sea of Galilee we heard about yesterday, the disciples on the boat with Jesus would have been absolutely terrified, not only for their lives, but also for their eternal souls. Again, we saw Jesus completely in command of the situation, calming the waters – to the Jewish readers of Matthew’s gospel yet another example of Jesus spiritual power and authority over evil.

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