Luke 4: 31 – 44 Jesus drives out an impure spirit, and heals many
Then he went down to Capernaum, a town in Galilee, and on the Sabbath he taught the people. They were amazed at his teaching, because his words had authority.
In the synagogue there was a man possessed by a demon, an impure spirit. He cried out at the top of his voice, ‘Go away! What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are – the Holy One of God!’
‘Be quiet!’ Jesus said sternly. ‘Come out of him!’ Then the demon threw the man down before them all and came out without injuring him.
All the people were amazed and said to each other, ‘What words these are! With authority and power he gives orders to impure spirits and they come out!’ And the news about him spread throughout the surrounding area.
Jesus left the synagogue and went to the home of Simon. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was suffering from a high fever, and they asked Jesus to help her. So he bent over her and rebuked the fever, and it left her. She got up at once and began to wait on them.
At sunset, the people brought to Jesus all who had various kinds of illness, and laying his hands on each one, he healed them. Moreover, demons came out of many people, shouting, ‘You are the Son of God!’ But he rebuked them and would not allow them to speak, because they knew he was the Messiah.
At daybreak, Jesus went out to a solitary place. The people were looking for him and when they came to where he was, they tried to keep him from leaving them. But he said, ‘I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent.’ And he kept on preaching in the synagogues of Judea.
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On Tuesday, when I wrote about the temptation of Jesus, I ducked out of considering whether or not the devil is real. Today’s reading shows Jesus driving out demons. I don’t think I can go on ignoring this matter.
I’ll start by summarising where I stand at this precise instant. If, as I pray and write, God wants me to change my position, I pray that he will give me the perception and obedience to do so.
I believe in God who created the universe. I believe he is good, and I believe he cares for his creation.
I believe that he created the universe with what you might call a moral direction, and that moral direction is shown by love. That love is primarily his love, but humans, created in his image, are capable of giving similar love to others. Indeed, we must show love for each other, because that is God’s will for us.
I can’t explain the beauty of the universe, the joy of being alive, the love I can share with others without a loving God as the creator.
However, I can understand physical illness without needing a demon to explain it. Microbes, prions, carcinogens, poor lifestyle – all these are ample to explain why people get sick.
Mental illness, too, is becoming better understood. Neuroscience, which studies the way the body’s nervous system works, is starting to shed light on the physical causes of mental illness. Although there are very many things we don’t understand yet, progress is being made. I don’t feel the need for a demon to explain mental illness.
Do we need the existence of a devil to explain sin? I don’t think so; we do a pretty good job on our own. There is a conflict between behaviour that was a survival advantage as we evolved and the love that God wants us to show. For example, a dominant animal is likely to have more opportunity to produce off-spring; over generations the trait to seek dominance becomes reinforced into that breed. However, grasping such dominance is opposed to the love that God wants human beings to show to each other.
We experience the desire to give full expression to these urges as temptation, and when we give way, we sin. And, of course, everybody shares these urges to a greater or lesser extent. They are hard-wired into the way our society works, too, making it even harder to avoid sin.
There is a final category of behaviour which does seem perhaps to exemplify evil. I’m thinking of truly atrocious behaviour where human beings seem to deliberately seek to do harm. I’m thinking of Hitler and the Nazis, Stalin in the Soviet Union, the military junta in the Argentine. And yet, even here I think that with sufficient knowledge we would understand such behaviour as human behaviour and not as devil-inspired actions.
So my view of the demons ‘driven out’ by Jesus is that they were people suffering from mental illness who were healed by Jesus. St Luke describes it as the driving out of demons because that was how he understood it; that was his world view. That was how people in the first century A.D. understood mental illness.
Let’s not be under any illusions. These were striking healings. They were miraculous. They were signs of Jesus’ authority, just as the bible says.
As for the identification of Jesus as the Holy One of God by those who were healed of mental illness; is that so surprising? Everybody would have been speculating about Jesus, wondering whether he could be the Messiah. People with mental illness are sick, not stupid. They would have picked up these conversations, these hints, and believed them. Some of them, because of their illness, would perhaps have less self-control than most people. It’s not surprising that they shouted out what everybody else was saying discreetly.
Thank you so much for Jesus’ ministry of healing. Thank you that he heals the sick, and strengthens those who are tempted. Thank you that he lives with us today.
In Jesus name, Amen