Better the Devil You Know
Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me”— for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss. Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.
When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.
Everyone’s afraid today, it seems to me. The Gerasenes are afraid of the possessed man and everyone is afraid of Jesus – that man, his demons, the townspeople and, even though they don’t say so, those pigs must have been terrified.
So, this time around, this Gospel story had me thinking about the saying: “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.” You’ve heard this before, right? I know another version of it thanks to an Indigo Girls’ song that sings: “The devil I know is starting to look awfully kind.” Emily Saliers, who wrote the song, sings about leaving a bad relationship, but being tempted to stay for fear or anxiety or uncertainty about the unknown.
Whatever the case, the implication is that sometimes we’re inclined, or tempted, or afraid – scared – into sticking with what we know and with what’s familiar – even if it’s bad – for fear the alternative may be even worse. We’re more afraid of what we don’t know that what we do – even if what we do know is pretty awful. “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.”
It’s something like what I think is going on with the Gerasenes and this possessed man and Jesus today. I suspect you’ve heard something about this strange story before – this bizarre little ditty about a demon-possessed man, some pigs on the hillside, and one of Jesus’ more obscure miracles. As strange as it is, it’s very much like what Jesus did so often: He showed up in strange territory. He opened his heart to a stranger. He loved someone everyone else had rejected. He found what had be so very lost and he fixed what had been broken.
In this case, this naked, possessed – perhaps mentally ill – sick, scared, ostracized man who’s been pushed out of his community, forced to live among the untouchable tombs on the outskirts of town, is miraculously made well, set free, healed of his affliction at the expense of some pigs who can’t swim. And what is celebrated by the likes of you and me – and likely celebrated by Jesus’ disciples back in the day, too – as another great miracle … isn’t exactly received as good news with great joy by the people in the country of the Garasenes.
The same people who had banished this poor, possessed, pathetic man from their midst, to the other side of the tracks; who had bound him with shackles and chains at times, weren’t exactly happy about what Jesus had done. Apparently, they were even more afraid of the power of Jesus’ healing than they were of whatever had scared them so much about this guy in the first place.
Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t, right?
Because what must this mean, that one who was sick was now well? What must it mean that one who had been worthless, banished, broken beyond repair was now none of those things – but was now the opposite of those things, in fact – loved (by Jesus), valued (by Jesus), restored, returned home, made whole?
And, even more, what must it mean that this guy, Jesus, this foreigner from Nazareth in Galilee, made it all happen? This Jesus who would cast the mighty down from their thrones and lift up the lowly; who would fill the hungry with good things and send the rich away empty; this Jesus who was touching lepers and healing the paralyzed; who hung out with fishermen and with women from the city; who broke the rules of the sabbath; this Jesus who proclaimed and promised a kingdom where humility, mercy, forgiveness, generosity, sacrifice and love of enemies were all evidence of victory and signs of strength.
Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.
Because if Jesus could do what he did to that Legion of demons – and if all the stories of his healing and teaching were true – than maybe all the rest of his ideas and promises and proclamations were true, too. And that might mean change for the status quo. It might mean that some tables would be turning, sometime soon. It might mean that who and what were once banished would be welcomed home again. It might mean that who and what were once considered sick and sinful would be well and worthy, instead.
It might mean that the familiar devil of complacency and of the status quo were starting to look awfully kind and easy in the face of all the change and challenge that God’s kingdom proposed. That’s why I imagine the people were so afraid of what they had seen in the country of the Gerasenes that day.
The devil they knew in their demon-possessed neighbor – and their ability to banish, ostracize, and disdain him – was more appealing than the love of God, in Jesus, that called them to welcome him home, to show him mercy, to see him as redeemed … to love him as Jesus had done.
The devil they knew – the lifestyle and life they were used to – was starting to look awfully kind, apparently; and better – safer – more familiar – than the alternative.
And isn’t that the case a lot of the time, still today?
I think about how women can be tricked, scared and threatened into remaining in abusive relationships. Sadly, the devils they know trick them into fearing what they don’t.
I think about young people who struggle with coming out of the closet. They’ve been tricked or shamed or scared into thinking that hiding and keeping secrets is more comfortable or more safe than living into the truth of their identity.
But it doesn’t have be quite so dramatic.
I know a devil named “Lazy” who keeps me from exercising as much as I should. I know a devil named “Busy” who keeps me from meditating and praying more often than I do. I know devils called “Pride” and “Ego” and “Greed” – and more – besides who keep me stuck in ways I wish I wasn’t.
And I’m not alone, am I? We stick with the devils we know in all kinds of ways, don’t we? And they are legion. We stay at jobs that don’t fulfill us, but that pay the bills – because what would the new thing be? We avoid conflict and hard conversations, for fear of the alternative. We keep more for ourselves because it seems scary to give more of it away. We do what we’ve always done – even when it ceases to bear fruit – just because we haven’t found the will or the way to do otherwise.
But what we forget is the same thing the Gerasenes couldn’t see or believe, just yet: that the quote-unquote “devil” we don’t know – or forget we know – is Jesus, who is no “devil” at all … but Jesus, master of grace and mercy and second-chances. Jesus, healer of our every ill. Jesus, lover of losers, forgiver of sinners, and friend of the broken. Jesus, who stills storms and calms seas and invites his people to step out onto them – in faith – and in spite of their better judgment.
We forget we know this Jesus, who calls us always to new things… new ways of living and moving and breathing in this world. This Jesus calls us to new joy, new hope, new life in spite of our fears and precisely because he is Jesus, crucified, died and risen for the sake of the world.