Demons of the Soul–Demons of the Heart


Rev. Joyce Antila Phipps

Old First Church, Middletown

February 3, 2019

Texts: Job 3:1-26; Luke 4:31-44

        In his play, The Jew of Malta, Christopher Marlowe presents Barabas, the richest man on Malta, faced with a demand by the Christian rulers to part with half his treasure to buy off an impending Turkish invasion. Refusing to part with any of his wealth or to convert, Barabas finds all of his wealth and his home confiscated. As with Job, Barabas is beset with three friends who counsel him to be patient. The confiscation of literally all that he has drives him to entreat his only child Abigail, who when in the opening soliloquy he com-pares her to Iphigenia one shudders, to pretend to be a nun to find the gold hidden in the house and to bring it to him. His rage also drives him to a more sinister form of vengeance as he sets up the son of the governor and a rival for Abigail’s love to kill each other in a duel. When Abigail learns of this, she enters the convent in payment for her father’s sins, and again his rage wrecks a terrible vengeance. He poisons his daughter and the convent. His hate and desire for vengeance leads him to allying himself with the Turkish invaders and then in his attempt to destroy the city, he falls into boiling oil. His hate has consumed him. It is a parable for our times.

         The loss of all that we have rings to mind the cry of Job: “Let the day perish in which I was born . . . Let that day be darkness. . . . Why is light given to one who cannot see the way, whom God has fenced in?” Although Barabas has only lost his wealth to this point, his cry is just as plaintiff:

You partial heavens, have I deserved this plague?

   What, will you thus oppose me, luckless stars,
   To make me desperate in my poverty?
   And knowing me impatient in distress,
   Think me so mad as I will hang myself,
   That I may vanish o'er the earth in air
   And leave no memory that e'er I was?
   No, I will live; nor loathe I this my life.
   And since you leave me in the ocean thus
   To sink or swim, and put me to my shifts,
   I'll rouse my senses, and awake myself.

        And awake himself he does to hate and vengeance – the demons of his soul consume him. These are the same demons that seize us now in a world that has little room for the healing power of love. These are the same demons that Jesus addresses in the man possessed, and they are the same demons that strive to possess us.

         We want to think that we are not capable of such hatred – the kind of hatred that spews forth the destructive vengeance created by Barabas the Jew. We do not set our children up to cause the deaths of others; we do not poison our children; we do not pit group against group or betray others into the hands of death. We are clearly not like Gavin McGuiness or Anne Coulter with their hateful anti-immigrant rhetoric nor are we like today’s robber barons who extract minerals from Third World countries leaving little besides en-vironmental degradation; nor do most of us support the death penalty for even heartless or brutal murderers such as Liam McAtasney who brutally murdered Laura Stern. No, we do not have those demons.

        But each of us does carry some hidden demon within us; each of us has demons inside our souls, something that we loathe or hate, and those demons are destructive for at any time they can rise up and control us. For most of us, they are usually little things, items that most of us would consider inconsequential. But it is the very insidiousness of anger that is so destructive.

       Demonic possession was the way people explained ill-nesses as well as strange and evil acts in times long past. The first references to demonic possession in recorded history come from Sumer, a city state in southern Mesopotamia, or modern day Iraq. The Sumerians developed a form of  writing called cuneiform and it is from the writings of the fourth mill-ennium BCE that we have the earliest references to demonic possession.

        The Sumerians believed that demons caused illnesses of both body and mind and used shamans, a particular kind of religious figure, to cast them out through exorcism. Physicians were used for applying bandages and salves to wounds but the shamans were essential for curing illnesses.

       Other shamanic cultures also hold beliefs in demonic possession. They include tribal cultures of Asia, and such be-liefs are reflected in Buddhism which ascribes emotions of hate, anger, jealousy, and greed to such possession as well.

The world is so complex today, or at least it seems so. It was no less complex in the past; look at Barabas the Jew, finding himself caught in ancient hatreds. As he states in his opening soliloquy:

          These are the blessings promised to the Jews,

   And herein was old Abrams happiness. …
   Who hateth me but for my happiness?
   Or who is honoured now but for his wealth?
   Rather had I, a Jew, be hated thus,
   Than pitied in a Christian poverty;
   For I can see no fruits in all their faith,
   But malice, falsehood, and excessive pride,
   Which methinks fits not their profession.

          As much as we want, once scarred, it is not possible to return to what once was. This is certainly true of a society as well as our individual lives. Even after Jesus has healed the man possessed by unclean spirits, he will not be able to re-turn to what once was for his experience of having been pos-sessed shapes his response to the events in the future. And the same is true of us.

        So what is our hope? Are we to be like Job and Barabas, decrying our fate? Do we allow anger or hate to consume us? Is there a way to move beyond our all too natural feelings of anger, bitterness, betrayal, and even hate? These are natural feelings whether we want to admit it or not. How do we move beyond the prison they have put us in?   

          We make blanket assumptions about people or groups because of the complexities of the world. Our minds find it difficult to grasp the events that transpire at what seems to be such a quickening pace. As one writer said, we need to retool our minds – and our hearts – to learn how to live to-gether, whether that is in a small community like the family or church, or a larger community like the nation or the world. We cannot simply rely on what has been handed down to us. We need to write a new language to address the ugly face of our past prejudices. And we all have some prejudice; none of us is free.

           Recognizing our prejudices, the anger, the bitterness, or the hatred – giving it a name helps. Just as Jesus called to the demons, we need to call to our old prejudices to free our-selves from them, no matter what they are. As many of you know, my mother’s family is from the South and I grew up hearing the vilest of things about people of color.

           I must have been around ten or so when I realized how prejudice and hate affected the people who held those hatreds. It twisted them, just as the demons in our souls can twist us. Although I put away that prejudice, I am sure that in the deep recesses of my heart I have others yet to be named. Naming them, learning how to address them as Jesus ad-dressed the demons creates the possibility of living beyond the stereotypes I carry in my mind.

           In his book Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance wrote about how he escaped the world of Appalachian values as trans-ferred to Middletown, Ohio – and there is more than simply the resemblance of a town’s name. Although he did not use the term demonic possession, his description of his exper-iences comes very close to the demons of our souls that in-habit us.

           As he looks back, the demons are not so different than the ones that inhabited the man Jesus cured; indeed, they reflect the destructive nature of events as related in the book of Job. It is almost as if the world all around conspires to destroy our attempts to live as civilized people.

            Our demons today are societal ones. Groups of people are demonized in the national conversation we are having about our future as a society. This is true on both the right and the left; it is true of racial and ethnic groups as well. Immigrants are demonized; police are demonized; the poor fare no better, not to mention gun owners. We have more than enough societal demons to go around and their demon-ization prohibits us from meaningful conversation. And I’m no better. In my frustration with the lack of progress in certain areas, I demonize those on the other side.

           Demonizing the other is emotionally and spiritually destructive. It’s something we all need to move beyond. And that is really difficult because in living as disciples of the One we follow, we are called to speak out against injustice as well as to feed the hungry. It is a delicate balance, to be sure.

I said that Marlowe’s play was a parable for our times. It is indeed a parable of how hate destroys the hater and all around. Moving beyond stereotype, prejudice, and our natural desire for vengeance is indeed difficult. We must do this indi-vidually and as a society – and as a Nation.

        Let us pray: God of amazing grace, open us to the possibilities of your ever-present love through Jesus of Nazareth, the man who healed the sick in body, mind, and spirit, and who brought us a new way of experiencing your love through the realm of justice, mercy, and love. Amen.