Joy of All Who Sorrow

23rd Sunday after Pentecost | Hieromartyr Zenobius & his sister, the Martyr Zenobia

[Gospel: Luke 8:26-39 (§38)]

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Dear father, brothers and sisters:

In today’s Gospel reading we return back to hear a reading we have already heard before told from the perspective of the holy Evangelist Luke rather than Matthew. Earlier in this chapter, our Lord had just been sailing in a boat across the sea of Galilee with his disciples when a major storm arose which terrified them whilst the Saviour slept soundly within the boat. After miraculously stilling the storm, our Lord with his band of disciples arrived in the South East part of the Lake by the pagan region of the Decapolis. This was very much Gentile territory, the place of pigs, demons and all unclean and unholy things which forms the backdrop to our reading today. As is our custom we will again interpret our Gospel reading with the help of our father amongst the saints, St Gregory Palamas.

And they arrived at the country of the Gadarenes, which is over against Galilee. And when he went forth to land, there met him out of the city a certain man, which had devils long time, and ware no clothes, neither abode in any house, but in the tombs.

In the Gospels we often come across demoniacs, people possessed of a demon or demons. In the context of first century Palestine, these poor souls were highly visible and in a wretched state and suffering from significant bodily harm. The Gadarene demoniac is certainly no exception to this and we see him coming directly towards the Saviour, naked, in distress and dwelling amongst the dead.

St Gregory begins his homily on this Gospel reading by raising a more speculative theological question as he often does in his preaching – why does God allow men to become possessed by demons and to continue, often for many years in this pitiable state? St Gregory answers –

As most people are unable to comprehend the devil’s maniacal fury against us from his attacks on our souls and the assistance he lends us when we sin, God permitted that there should be some people physically under the control of demons, that we might all learn from them how terrible is the affliction of a soul when it intends to make itself the devil’s dwelling through evil deeds.

St Gregory reminds us that although much more open and much more public and visible, the plight of the demoniac is actually not as severe as the plight of those – like us – who may appear righteous and pious on the outside, but inside be full of all manner of sin and ugliness. As again St Gregory says –

When demoniacs die, they cast off the demons’ influence along with their body, but unrepentant sinners have an everlasting affliction, which cannot be thrown off.

There is something very powerful, even elemental, about how the forces of evil in the person of the demoniac were drawn magnetically to the Lord as soon as He came ashore on the banks of the Sea of Galilee. This drawing out of evil is all part of the revelation of our Lord as the Son of God, the Word made flesh the Light of the World against the blackness of the Night.  

When he saw Jesus, he cried out, and fell down before him, and with a loud voice said, What have I to do with thee, Jesus, thou Son of God most high? I beseech thee, torment me not. (For he had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. For oftentimes it had caught him: and he was kept bound with chains and in fetters; and he brake the bands, and was driven of the devil into the wilderness.)

From this passage of the Gospel we can clearly see that the poor demoniac had lost all agency and freedom and was completely in the power and sway of the demons who possessed him so much so that he has even lost all sense of voice and identity. We also learn more in parathesis about just how strong and how violent their control over the poor man was so that he could not even be restrained by chains and fetters. The reference to the Lord not to torment the demons St Gregory explains in these words –

That thoroughly disgusting swarm of evil spirits were seized with dismay, and they feared lest they were to be handed over now by the Lord to the Judgment to come, the hell-fire prepared for them.   

It is for this reason that the demons adopt this transparently false posture of flattery and praise in some desperate effort to manipulate Wisdom itself who they knew had complete mastery and power over them. One of the greatest ironies of the Gospel of course is the fact that the demons know Who Christ is, and yet His own people, the people He had come to save, ignore Him and fail to recognize Who is in their midst. Despite their obvious falsity, the Lord, in St Gregory’s words, ‘tolerated the witness they bore Him for the instruction of the men in the boat’, his disciples.

And Jesus asked him, saying, What is thy name? And he said, Legion: because many devils were entered into him.

St Gregory sees in the reference to the man’s possession of a Legion of devils the answer to why there is some seeming discrepancy between there being one or two demoniacs here amongst the Evangelists.

A legion is a large group or body of angels or men who fight and move around together, having one action and purpose in view, and the same sort of motivation. Those demonaics, acting under the control of this sort of troop and borne along by it, were together in the tombs and hills … because of this, both they and the evil spirits harassing them are sometimes referred to in the singular and sometimes in the plural.

In the Roman army, a legion was composed of between five and six thousand men which gives some indication of the immense scale of the demonic possession.

And they besought him that he would not command them to go out into the deep. And there was there an herd of many swine feeding on the mountain: and they besought him that he would suffer them to enter into them. And he suffered them.

Again we can see here that the demons could only dwell wherever the Lord directly permitted them and they could not do anything without His express permission. The Lord would not tolerate such a great number of demons to be expelled only to enter directly into another poor soul. Instead, as part of the proclamation of the Gospel, we can see a great cleansing of evil and the driving out of the demons from the areas which had been under their curse and sway. It is for this reason that the demons do not ask to go into another human or humans, but to somehow make their escape by going into a herd of animals. It is suitable though that the demons should choose the pigs which, under the Law were an unclean animal.

Then went the devils out of the man, and entered into the swine: and the herd ran violently down a steep place into the lake, and were choked.

‘The Lord’, says St Gregory –

gave His permission so that we might learn from what happened to the pigs that the demons would not have refrained from delivering the man up to complete destruction, had they not previously been invisibly restrained by the Lord’s power.

In this dramatic ending to our Gospel reading we see the full violence and destructiveness of the demons and how much this power had been mercifully restrained by the greater power of the Lord who had prevented the demons from exerting the same fate to the man.

When they that fed them saw what was done, they fled, and went and told it in the city and in the country. Then they went out to see what was done; and came to Jesus, and found the man, out of whom the devils were departed, sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed, and in his right mind: and they were afraid.

This depiction of the healing and restoration of the demoniac is a very moving one, and one of the most beautiful scenes I think in the whole Gospel. The one who before had been expelled from society, and chained and left to move amongst the tombs, naked, in distress is now ‘sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed, and in his right mind’. What a contrast there is between the peacefulness of this man now at rest with the Lord and the frenzy of the legion of demons.

They also which saw it told them by what means he that was possessed of the devils was healed. Then the whole multitude of the country of the Gadarenes round about besought him to depart from them; for they were taken with great fear: and he went up into the ship, and returned back again.

Here again we see the cruel and devilish irony of fallen humanity. The Lord comes to His own people and, despite preaching Wisdom in their Temples, healing the blind, the deaf and the lame, casting out demons, despite working great and wondrous miracles in their midst, He is still rejected by them. Without complaint, He then mercifully turns also towards the Gentiles, those who had been in darkness and despite working great miracles, expelling a legion of demons from the Gadarene demoniacs, still they tell Him, even beg Him to depart from their land. Instead of recognizing that God had come to their shores in a dramatic Theophany foretelling the future defeat of the Evil powers, they instead can only think of the pigs. And before we seek to judge either the Jews or the Gentiles, are we, brothers and sisters, really any better than any of them? How often do we turn ourselves away from the Lord, away from the holy Mysteries, and instead plunge back towards the muck, swill and stink of a swinish life of earthly cares and passions.  

Now the man out of whom the devils were departed besought him that he might be with him: but Jesus sent him away, saying, Return to thine own house, and shew how great things God hath done unto thee. And he went his way, and published throughout the whole city how great things Jesus had done unto him.

Again in another moving image in this final passage of the Gospel reading, the former demoniac asks that He might ‘be with him’. Again, how beautiful this is. The former demoniac is now transformed into a beloved disciple and missionary of the Lord.

Dear ones: let us follow the example of this former demoniac and like him let us plant ourselves firmly at the feet of the Lord and seek to always be with Him in our hearts. Let us follow in the way of Mary the Sister of Lazarus and also choose that better part, dwelling and remaining with the Lord in lives of prayer. As St Gregory ends his sermon, ‘Let all of us take flight … let us escape without a backward glance from the foul-smelling life of sin, and let us rightly and justly approach … Christ … to whom belongs the glory unto the ages of ages’.