Luke 8. 26-39 They begged him not to order them back into the abyss.

Fr Alec
Sunday, July 7, 2013 - 9:30am

Hardly a week goes by without some story cropping up in the news denouncing the latest absurdity in the realms either of ‘Health and Safety’ or ‘Political Correctness’. It is a formula that has become hackneyed and wearisome, but still these stories sell papers because they meet some inner need that we have to shake our fist at the ridiculousness of the world, however false or misleading the details of the particular story may be.

Though I try, as a rule, to ignore the latest attempt to make my blood boil, I failed to do so recently when I heard that the Girl Guides had changed the wording of their promise. They will no longer pledge "to love my God, to serve my Queen and my country", but rather to "be true to myself and develop my beliefs". And this, to my mind, is profoundly depressing on a number of levels.

On the one level there is the replacement of something positive and succinct with something irredeemably bland and meaningless. On another there is the implicit assumption that promising to ‘love God’ is in some way unwholesome- that faith in God is not one of those good things we want children to learn as they grow . Connected to this is the craven desire to be inclusive at the expense of any recognisable conviction. Our Institutions are increasingly wary of connecting themselves to any set of ideals for fear of discriminating or causing offence. But by abandoning these things they empty themselves of content, leaving their members to wander rudderless through life.

When I read the new Girl Guide promise, to ‘be true to myself and develop my beliefs, I am reminded of GK Chesterton, who said this:

“Once I remember walking with a prosperous publisher, who made a remark which I had often heard before; it is, indeed, almost a motto of the modern world. Yet I had heard it once too often, and I saw suddenly that there was nothing in it. The publisher said of somebody, ‘That man will get on; he believes in himself.’ ...  I said to him, ‘Shall I tell you where the men are who believe most in themselves? For I can tell you. I know of men who believe in themselves more colossally than Napoleon or Caesar. I know where flames the fixed star of certainty and success. I can guide you to the thrones of the Supermen. The men who really believe in themselves are all in lunatic asylums.’

And this is the heart of the matter. Unless we place our belief somewhere definite, however contentious or open to dispute, then we are thrown back entirely on ourselves, like lunatics. Unless we fix our colours to the mast, we are the slave to every whim or passing fancy. Well might we ‘develop our beliefs’, but in what direction? Scientology? National Socialism? We may want to be ‘true to ourselves’, but unless we have developed some idea of what we are, that is a pretty empty promise. On the other hand, a promise to ‘love God’ signs us up to certain unavoidable principles: That we will love our neighbour as ourself, and our enemy as our friend. That we are not simply accidents of flesh and bone vaguely wandering the cosmos, but cherished children of a loving Father.

And so today in Luke, we find Jesus in the land of the Gerasenes- a Gentile territory. Everything in this passage points to the uncleanness, the ritual impurity of the surroundings: the keeping of pigs, the living among tombs. To hammer the point home the man is said to be possessed by an ‘unclean spirit’. In this context, to be unclean is to be separated from God- to be unable to draw close to God’s sanctuary and make sacrifice. Undeterred, Jesus draws close to the man who has been driven by his demons away from all that is sacred and into all that is profane.

The man is not in his right mind. He is no longer free to do as he pleases, and this slavery is graphically demonstrated by the fact that he is bound with chains and under guard. What he receives from Jesus is not simply healing, but release…freedom. The devils that would seize him are driven away, and he is set at liberty.

But look at the contrast. The man who has no power to help himself is healed, and he uses his new-found freedom to sit at Jesus feet, and to proclaim the works of God. The demons, who begged not to be sent back into the abyss have no power to help themselves- their first act is to run headlong to their own destruction. The dichotomy is set up between receiving life, and choosing death, between freedom and oblivion.

It may seem to us that choosing God is a burden. That it comes freighted with all kinds of duties and laws and obligations. That we might be more free if we abandoned old-fashioned ideas of God and forged ahead, choosing our own path. But this is simply an illusion. As I suggested earlier, unless we have a clear idea of what we are, then we have no basis for deciding who we are. Our lives are not blank sheets on which we can write our own story. They are ships at sea, carried inexorably by wind and tide. With no-one at the helm they will eventually hit a rock.

We abandon God, and we are left with a vacuum, which others will inevitably fill.  Advertisers will tell us who we are and what we should be, we will look to extremist movements for a sense of identity and purpose.  As Bob Dylan says:

Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.


Without anything to guide them, we will become the slave of our senses and passions. Without an overarching vision of the world, we will be left to chase whatever seems attractive in the here and now, however vile or illusory it may be.

Consider the gospel again. Jesus does not command the poor man to follow him, as a condition of healing him. He sets him free, and it is his gratitude that brings him to Jesus’ feet. He serves us. All the service that we might do is only a response to the love that has sought us and set us free.

I want that freedom for my children, and I think that it would be an abuse to deny it to them, as much as it would be to deny them food or shelter.

God forbid that we should edit him out of our public lives, and leave ourselves open to influences that would drive us far from home, charging like swine over the cliff to destruction.