St. George the Martyr
Preaching on the saints can be, at times, a real challenge. This is especially true with some of the early saints, including some of the apostles, about whom we know very little, and what we do know, is largely legend. Does the preacher simply stick to the texts, or do they focus on the legend? The problem with dismissing the legend out of hand is that many of the legends have within them shards of historical truth, and if they don’t, the legends are so archetypal, they still contain truth, and those archetypal legends have the power to shape and influence lives.
This is especially true of St. George, whom we remember today. What can be said about him, or at least about his feast historically, is that his feast was being kept as early as the mid fifth century. The legend of George and the dragon can’t be traced back earlier than the twelfth century. It is thought he died a martyr in the early years of the fourth century, during the persecution of Diocletian. He may have been a soldier, which gave rise to him being recognized as the patron saint of soldiers in twelfth century. As patron saint of soldiers, the Crusades were fought under his banner, which is how, ultimately, devotion to George was carried back to England, where in 1347 he was declared the patron saint.
I reckon that most people, reading this story for the first time, would find it quite strange. It certainly is unusual, and describes a scene most of us would never have imagined. We would likely attribute the man’s condition to severe mental illness or trauma, rather than suspecting demons at work. Casting out demons – and sending them into a herd of swine – would be a very odd cure in our minds, and probably not one that we could imagine or recommend. The story is odd, but let’s take a closer look at it to see what insights it might provide.
The gospel writers recorded the miracles of Jesus as evidence of his divine nature, and this story certainly reveals his amazing power. But one thing that sets it apart from other miracle stories is that it takes place in the country of the Gerasenes, and it involves people who were not Jews, as Jesus was. It is remarkable that Jesus would deliberately cross over the Sea of Galilee to reach this place and bring himself in contact with a person who was ritually impure, to say nothing of being possessed by evil spirits. But Jesus, as we know, had a habit of setting aside the religious laws and practices of his day in order to show compassion – which is what he does here.
So what do you make of the story we’ve just read from the Gospel of Luke? Do you believe in ‘demons’ or ‘unclean spirits’ that ‘possess’ people and cause physical and mental illness? Do you believe that these ‘demons’ can be ‘cast out’ and that Jesus had power over them, as this story testifies? Or do you suspect that this story so heavily reflects first-century beliefs about human behavior and illness that it has little relevance to us who live in the modern era? Is it difficult for you to make sense of “Jesus, the exorcist”?
Our ability to hear, to comprehend and to profit from accounts like this one from Luke’s gospel is certainly shaped by our modern context. On the one hand, we are enlightened people, with access to vast amounts of information about human psychology, human behavior, and human illnesses that simply did not exist in Jesus’ day. So we might naturally be skeptical about first-century assumptions about demons and demon-possession. It’s likely that we could come up with a number of other plausible explanations for what might have happened that day in the synagogue at Capernaum that would make more sense to our modern minds.
What’s your experience with demons? Demons appear on practically every page of the Gospel. Sooner or later, every conscientious follower of the Gospel of Christ must arrive at his or her own interpretive conclusions about these demons, a personal demonology, if we are to engage in any life-giving and meaningful way with these ancient texts, their ancient authors and their first-century worldview.