June 23, 2019: Proper 4C (English)
Proper 4C, 2019. Zion, Baltimore.
Isaiah 65:1-9; Psalm 22:19-28; Galatians 3:23-29; Luke 8:26-39
Pastor Eric Deibler
Many of the stories of the Bible seem weird, often because they arise in a time and a place and a culture that is much different than our own. But, sometimes, the stories ARE just weird. There’s the story of Balaam and his donkey. The book of Judges takes some truly strange turns as we watch Israel descend into chaos.
The story of the Gerasene demoniac is one of those biblical stories that is just plain strange, and would be strange no matter what culture, time or place in which it is told. The strange part of the story comes well into the telling of it. Alas, it is not strange for peculiar people who might constitute a danger to themselves or others for reasons outside of their control to be locked away out of public sight. We have institutions where people may be kept for treatment and long-term care, though not enough of them and not of sufficient quality. Lacking such institutions, the leaders of the community to which the Gerasene demoniac belonged had kept him chained and under guard.
Opposition to Jesus is beginning to build. His actions have revealed his unusual, some may say “strange”, nature. Healing, exorcisms, raising a young man from the dead, stilling the storm that threatened the disciples’ boat the previous night… Taken together, they reveal that Jesus is no ordinary teacher or rabbi. And so, the forces lining up to oppose Jesus are not only political, but also spiritual. The very same forces that oppose God.
Jesus leaves the comfortable, predominantly Jewish area of Galiee and crosses the sea to the land of the Gerasenes. This is Gentile territory, not a place a Jewish rabbi would normally venture. And in Jewish custom, the possessed man is religiously unclean. The man dwells among the dead in the tombs. Tombs are another place considered ritually unclean. All of which means that Jesus, the Jewish itinerant rabbi proclaiming the coming kingdom of God, goes to an unclean land to meet a man possessed by an unclean spirit living in an unclean place. This is, in short, the very last place Jesus should be.
But that’s where God usually shows up. At our moments of profound doubt, grief, loss, and defeat. And among those who may, to this point, have little interest in, let alone relationship with, God. Interestingly, after this encounter, Jesus sails back home again. So, the whole trek across a stormy sea and turbulent run in with townspeople distraught by their loss of livestock and frightened by the power of this rabbi was all in order to meet this unclean man possessed by an unclean spirit living in an unclean and forsaken environment. All of which means that there is absolutely nowhere God is not willing to go to reach and free and sustain and heal those who are broken and despairing.
Talking about demon-possession makes us uncomfortable in the post-modern age. But when we do away with the demonic possession, we miss that point, and lose the power of this story. Possessed by an unholy spirit or spirits, an individual is no longer willing to be possessed by the Holy Spirit. Cut off from the source of all life, the possessed are consumed by sin, and isolated from God and all others. The Gerasene demoniac, possessed only by unholy spirits, haunts the tombs of his community, a companion only of the dead, and utterly alone. The aloneness of the Gerasene demoniac is not strange, given his condition, and neither, by this time, is Jesus’ obvious willingness to heal or save; the Greek word “sozo” can mean healing or saving.
By now, we know that Jesus’ compassion for the sick and the demon-possessed is bottomless. But, and here is the surprise, the unexpected thing that Jesus does: he does more than simply drive out the possessors of the poor citizen of Gerasa. He asked the Gerasene demoniac for his name, recognizing his humanity. And the unholy spirits respond with the word, “Legion.”
Until this point, the story sounds like a simple healing miracle. For people in the ancient Roman world, however, “Legion” had only one literal meaning: a unit of approximately six thousand Roman soldiers, the occupying army. So, this exorcism has not only spiritual, but also social and political significance.
Luke’s word choices throughout the story are highly charged. When the man “confronts Jesus”, Luke uses a verb that he employs elsewhere regarding armies meeting in battle. When the demon “seizes” the man, the same verb is used elsewhere when Christians are arrested and brought to trial (Acts 6:12; 19:29). The words for the hand and foot chains, for binding and guarding, are the same ones that Luke uses in Acts when the disciples are imprisoned. The language of the whole episode evokes the experience of living under a brutal occupying power.
It was in Gerasa that the Romans killed a thousand young men, imprisoned their families, burned the city, and then attacked villages throughout the region. Many of those buried in the Gerasene tombs had been slaughtered by Roman legions.
When Legion encounters Jesus, it begs not to be sent to the abyss. Jesus permits Legion to enter into a herd of pigs instead, which immediately proceed to drown themselves. Jews regarded pigs as unclean, so this detail is a reminder that Jesus is in Gentile territory.
The pigkeepers witness the whole scene and run to spread the news. When they return with people from both the city and the countryside, the liberated man is sitting calmly at Jesus’ feet, clothed and in his right mind. After hearing how he has been freed, the people do not celebrate his good news. Instead, overwhelming fear hems them in and holds them captive. Freedom, it turns out, is too dangerous, too costly. Though Legion has been driven from the man, the memory of Legion still controls his community. The Gerasenes beg Jesus to leave them.
Jesus goes away as they have asked, but not before commanding the man to return to the city and explain what God has done for him. The man obeys, spreading far and wide the good news about the mighty work that God is doing in Jesus.
This whole story is an invitation. It invites us to consider what Jesus has to do with the forces that occupy and control us. It challenges us to think broadly about Jesus’ sovereignty over the powers that destroy human life. How many people are haunted by a traumatic past and tortured by memories? How many live unsheltered and inadequately clothed because of social and economic forces that they cannot overcome, no matter how hard they struggle? How many are imprisoned, regarded as barely human, excluded, cast out? How many are enslaved by addictions no longer knowing where the addiction ends, and their own selves begin? Where do the governing authorities separate people from their families, denying them the opportunity to seek better lives? Where do occupying armies still brutalize entire communities and hold them captive to fear?
Jesus comes to challenge and cast out every power that prevents us from living fully and freely as human beings created in God’s image. Jesus claims sovereignty not just over our souls, but over our lives here on earth. Ironically, not unlike the Gerasene people, we often resist that news. Deliverance from Legion is too frightening, too demanding, too costly. But those whom Jesus has healed and freed know that his liberating love is indeed good news, the gospel that he commands us to proclaim throughout our cities and towns.
There are no conditions to be met in order to receive God’s love. You don’t have to be wealthy…or poor. You don’t have to be from one ethnic group…or another. You don’t have to have believed your whole life, or come to faith only recently, or have any faith at all. Jesus seeks out everyone, even this unclean man possessed by an unclean spirit living in an unclean place. Likewise, God loves all: male and female; young and old; gay or straight; white, black, Asian, Latino; believers and non-believers; Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim, atheist; the list goes on.
So, what about us? Where are we willing to go? Whom are we willing to love?
This is not often easy work. But we take it up and go out knowing that God is with us, working through us to seek out those in need, to share a word of mercy and grace, and to witness to the hope we have in Jesus, the one who continues to seek us out when we feel down and out, caught in the shadow lands, eager for a new name, identity and future. Still today God is at work in Jesus, bringing God’s kingdom on earth, as it is in heaven. AMEN