Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA
While preaching, teaching, and casting out unclean spirits, Jesus has met with a number of predictable responses: astonishment from the crowds; jealousy from the Pharisees; confusion from his disciples. The crowds are astonished by his authority to command spirits. The Pharisees are jealous of his influence over the people. And the poor disciples are confused by his parables and his reluctance to act like a proper prophet. Of all the responses he's garnered—amazement, envy, puzzlement—one stands out as unusual: fear. Looking back over our gospel readings last week, we read that the unclean spirits fear Jesus b/c he has authority over them as the Son of God. They beg him not interfere in their business of tormenting souls. The Lord casts them out despite their pleas. So, why do I say that fear is an unusual response to Jesus' preaching? Well, we can expect unclean spirits to be afraid of the Christ. But in this morning's reading we hear that a man possessed by an unclean spirit is freed from possession. The local folks approach Jesus and see that the man is calm and “in his right mind.” Are they astonished? Jealous? Confused? No, “. . .they were seized with fear. . .Then they began to beg him to leave their district.” Seized with fear? Why? Why are they afraid of Jesus? Why would anyone be afraid of a man who can free them from the chains of an unclean spirit?
Let's put the question in more modern terms and see what we can come up with. Why would someone in love with their sin fear another who has been freed from that sin? I've spent many an hour sitting in various kinds of 12-Step groups with clients who report that their efforts at recovery often evoke fear among their friends who are still indulging their addictions. I know a couple of men and women who struggle with same-sex attractions who have found themselves friendless b/c they have chosen to live chastely. In my own experience, there is no quicker way to get offered lots of fried food and sugary pastries than to announce that I am on a diet! You've heard it said that misery loves company. We can amend that saying to read, “Misery loves company and so does sin.” When confronted by the power and authority of the Christ to cast out unclean spirits, the people around Jesus become afraid b/c he is a source of radical change, a whirlwind of upheaval and potential destruction. If he can command demons, what can he do to my comfortable life, my cozy life of sin?
Now, of course, a big part of the peoples' fear is that Jesus is displaying what they think of as the power of a wizard—he casts demons into swine. But we can't discount the ability of their human minds to make a connection between the insanity of the possessed man and their own disobedience. Those possessed are possessed b/c of their sin. Jesus can handle Legion. He can certainly turn to me and radically alter my snug relationship with my favorite sin. That's scary. Especially if I'm not particularly inclined to think of my favorite sin as a sin. This raises another question: if being freed from my favorite sin is so terrifying, what does that say about the influence that sin has on how I see myself? In other words, am I more than just the sum total of my sins? If I am, then what's left over? Who am I w/o my sins? Seriously facing that question is terrifying for some of us. The Good News here is that w/o our sins we are all that much closer to being who and what we were created to be: Christs for one another. Fear may be a natural response to this truth, but fear is never the best response to being offered eternal life.
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