Pioneer magazine

Spiriting Away Our Demons

october2011Luke’s Gospel portrays Jesus as a miraculous healer We, his followers, are healers too. But our focus is the miracle of healthy relationships, suggests Tom Cahill SVD

An atheist once asked a priest: "Do you honestly believe that Jonah spent three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish?" The priest gave an answer he thought the question deserved, and rep|ied: "I don`t know, sir; but when I get to heaven I’ll ask him." Not satisfied with that, the atheist persisted: "But suppose he isn't in heaven, then what?" The priest replied dryly: "Then, you ask him."

That puts me in mind of a bishop's reply to an RTE reporter on the Nine O’CIock News one evening some years ago. It was during the time of the alleged moving-statue phenomenon in Ballinspittle, County Cork. A reporter asked him what was the Church’s response to the moving statue. "Well, “he said, "when it comes to recognizing moving statues, the Church moves more slowly than the statue." A choice comment indeed that says it all! And that I think is the attitude one should adopt towards claims of miraculous happenings whether they be at shrines, in the sky. in stumps of trees, on plaster statues, in glass phials, or wherever.

A person of faith keeps an open mind towards alleged miracles. Blessed with a brain, however we don`t dispense with it and accept as gospel every report of a miraculous happening. We have intelligence to grasp reality and discover truth. So streetwise savvy seasoned with faith`s acceptance of God’s freedom to operate outside of what we call the laws of nature is called for even when  meeting Jesus the wonderworker in the gospels.

Luke, for example, presents him as both teacher and healer He connects very closely Jesus' authority to teach with his authority to exorcise and heal. He also links closely these two forms of  wonder working. You see this in his account of Jesus healing a man possessed by an unclean spirit (4.35) and healing a woman of a fever (4.39). He uses the same verbs ‘rebuke' and ‘depart` to order a demon and a fever out of a person. Here we see in action the mission of the Prophet that Jesus identifies with: "He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free…   " (Lk 4.18-21). From the start he releases people who are captives to spiritual and physical illness. Removing the shackles that prevent us from enjoying the freedom God intends us to have is a priority for Jesus.

Since he removes the shackles that limit human freedom, clearly it’s not God's will that anyone should be shackled. Consequently, some questions arise: what are these shackles, where do they come from and who puts them on us? We look to Luke for some answers.
Jesus goes to Capernaum, a city of about 15,000 inhabitants. Luke sets his stories of Jesus in cities that are the cultural, economic, political and social centres of an area. In this way he gets across the importance of proclaiming God's word in what nowadays we would call the public arena.

Those listening to Jesus are astounded at his teaching. Not only has his word power over the minds and hearts of his listeners, it has power over unclean spirits too. It instils insight, wonder; inspiration and expectation in the healthy ones listening to him in the synagogue. In the case of the unhealthy ones it removes their source of sickness and frees them for a fuller life.
When the possessed man acknowledges Jesus as the Holy One of God (4.34) his shackles shatter and he acquires health. His demon goes. Being in touch with holiness, or God in other words, removes the shackles of sin, the scourge of selfishness and the confining net of negativity. It undermines the power of evil influences in a person’s life, and brings health.

The important truth here is that Jesus has total and effortless power over evil. He tells the unclean spirit to be quiet and depart (4.35). It does. He issues his command in the case of a man — and in public so all present can see what happens. There`s no mumbo jumbo, no trickery, no happenings that only some ‘chosen’ ones can see. And the evil leaves the man without doing him any harm. Jesus' healing is lasting and harm free.

In the next incident in Luke, Jesus commands a fever to leave a woman, this time in the private setting of Simon’s house. Luke is telling us that Jesus’ liberating power is for both men and women and is not confined to sacred places. Also, he wants to explain that faith and discipleship grow out of an encounter with healing. Simon, having seen what Jesus does for his mother-In-Iaw, becomes his follower.  
Luke describes the fever as ‘high’ to emphasize the power that Jesus` word has. Because they came on so suddenly and because of their harmful effects such as delirium, fevers were feared in the ancient world. They were not easily controllable. Yet just one command from Jesus makes the fever go. Even today that would raise eyebrows. Luke has Jesus ‘stand over` Simon’s mother-in-law. He’s in a dominant position in relation to the fever It has the woman supine, but not Jesus. Her cure is instantaneous. No recuperation period is needed. |t's back to business straight away. Again, Jesus’ power over evil is total and lasting.

Naturally such power makes people wonder who he is. Luke tells us: Son of God and Messiah. It’s because of Jesus` origin in God and because he`s God’s chosen one to bring salvation that he has power to cast out demons.

Demonic possession as found in the gospels doesn`t have to mean the presence of an alien being inside a person controlling him or her But it does imply the presence of something alien to human nature in the person ‘possessed.’ This could, for example, be some aspect of a person's personality that has become so warped that it’s no longer recognizable as normal or even human. How the warping happens is an open question.

Earlier I asked about the shackles that limit human freedom and downgrade the quality of life. What are they, where do they come from and who puts them on us? Well, taking just those two healing incidents from Luke’s gospel we can say in answer to the first question that illness - physical, psychological and spiritual - is a type of shackles that prevents a person from experiencing a full life and a maturing freedom.
Such shackles can come from skewed genes, a chemical imbalance in the brain and from all kinds of addictions. They can come from unrestrained selfishness, from attitudes, values, lifestyles,  ambitions, appetites or toxic emotions that are not in keeping with the nature of a person made in the image and likeness of God. They can come from surrendering to evil, or from allowing oneself to become so obsessed by something or someone that the obsession degrades to full-blown possession and practically taking over a person’s life. In a nutshell, they come from a heart closed in on itself, that gives no room to God.

Who puts them on us? While others may be involved, we have to admit, however; that ultimately we put them on ourselves.
Though we are not like the possessed man in Luke`s Gospel, we do, nevertheless, have our demons to contend with. The form they take can be fear, scrupulosity, immaturity, jealousy, self-dislike, low self-esteem, dislike of others, resentment, carnal cravings, depression, the ageing process and an inability to accept an all-loving God.

The healing that Jesus brings in Luke’s gospel is a sign of a fullness of life that's yet to come. While the fullness is of the future the healing is for the present. It’s merely an open-heart beat away lt comes through a smile of friendship. a helping hand, a forgiving graciousness, a mature faith and above all a heart full of love for God and neighbour. It comes from healthy relationships with those with whom we live, work and play each day. Loving relationships surely must be among the greatest miracles of all.