In our Gospel today, on a Sabbath in the little town of Capernaum, on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee, 120 miles from Jerusalem, we encounter Jesus once again teaching in the synagogue. Jesus spent the bulk of his three years of ministry teaching; in fact, the healings he is so famous for is really but a small part of his total ministry. Getting the Good News to “stick” permanently in the people’s hearts and minds was his main goal, because he wanted salvation for all who believed in him. But we all know how difficult that can be: preaching the Gospel, as any preacher will tell you, is often a very hard sell. Most people generally prefer to be entertained rather than lectured, even if those lectures were about the good news of salvation and even if the lecturer was Jesus, and Jesus knew it. Knowing that it is human nature to want to be wowed and excited all the time, he uses miracles to convince the crowd of his power. Jesus surely knew how to grab the crowd’s attention, and after he had, he had a message to teach them about salvation, one they were more apt to listen to after the miracle, not before.
So, in order to drive home his authority to teach the Truth he sometimes would heal in a spectacular way. Today we see one of his more spectacular healings. It involved casting out a shouting, blaspheming, unclean spirit that had possessed a man and was throwing the man into fits during a public synagogue worship service.
Imagine what your reaction would be if you witnessed the same thing here at Sunday Mass. The preacher is preaching, and all of a sudden a man who, for all intents and purposes seems deranged, gets up and starts shouting every manner of foul insult at the presider. We’d probably all back away, as a man displaying this kind of outrageous behavior may well be dangerous; some may even pull out a cell phone to call 911. In the Gospel he’s shouting nasty ugly words directly at Christ. It appears probable that the deranged man is possessed by a demon. Jesus knew it was true; he saw and addressed the evil spirit directly, because he could see and recognize it, and even knew its name by the way it answered Jesus. It said, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” It was Jesus’ old nemesis, the one he had previously cast out of another possessed man and sent into swine and tumbling down a steep hill. Its name was Legion. Legion was very, very powerful and very, very dangerous and very, very hateful. Actually, Legion was a group or cohort of demons possessing the man.
Like a person living in sin who tries to deflect his guilt by muttering insults at the Church over all its restrictive rules, the demon in the man sees Jesus, knows who he is, and tries to bully Jesus away from him. All the people see is a crazy, shouting man, but Jesus knows that the man is possessed and so orders the demon to get out immediately, by name. Any exorcist will tell you, and they still do exist in the Church, that the key to overcoming the possession is to get the demon to give you his name. Once that happens, the exorcist has power over the evil spirit, and that’s what we see happening here. Of course, the demon made it easy right from the beginning when he referred to himself as “us.” That was the dead giveaway. No match for the power of Christ, Legion does leave, with one last convulsion of the man for spite, and the man is immediately healed of his convulsions, to the amazement of all.
But what does this mean for us? Let’s ask ourselves, what demons, to use the term broadly, do we harbor willingly or unwillingly that keeps us from perfect union with Christ? What distractions, what sins, what addictions have crept into our hearts that envelop us so deeply that we defend them so vehemently out of fear of letting go of them? What weaknesses, demons if you will, sends our souls into convulsions of fear? What demons do we harbor inside, afraid to let go for fear of the pain the withdrawal will cost us, physically, spiritually, mentally, maybe even financially? According to Thomas Jefferson in a different context, these demons of our lives are akin to holding a wolf by the ears: we don’t like it one bit but we dare not let go. What are we harboring deep in our hearts that we, without Christ’s help, dare not let go?
That’s what Jesus’ message is all about: letting go, of the demons within us, of all that hampers our reception of the Good News. Today we heard of a spectacular miracle being performed, but Jesus still heals the desperate every day, through his word, through the sacraments, through his power over evil. Chances are that you do not have Legion himself dwelling within you, messing up your body and soul like the poor soul in today’s Gospel, but whatever it is, like the possessed man today, present your needs and even your weaknesses to Jesus who can and will destroy the demons within us. Expect from that moment on, like the possessed man who today was exorcized by Christ, to be, from the moment of healing, once again, free.