It Takes a Village
Demon possession is something we don’t tend to talk a great deal about these days. While I don’t fully discount the possibility of such a thing, we now know that many of the symptoms of demon possession even up through the 1800s turned out to be diseases that we seek to treat today. People struggling with multiple personalities, schizophrenia, severe anxiety, addictions and many more conditions, they were understood to be living under the influence of not a disease but of the devil.
Now, thanks to modern medicine, we view someone who experiences seizures as a person with a medical issue rather than a demon. Which is quite the helpful distinction!
Illustration: The Church Streaker
My dad, who had been a pastor for 40 years, would tell the story of a particular Sunday that he will likely never forget. Lots of churches have a sign or at least proclaim the idea to, “Come as you are” or “All are Welcome.”
Well, in one of the congregations my dad served, they had a gentleman do just that. Part-way through the worship service, a man came into the church, strolled down the side isle of the sanctuary and took a seat near the back. Now, this wouldn’t have been much of an issue, except the guy happened to be completely naked.
An usher came forward, offered a coat to the man, who refused. After checking to see if the man needed help, the usher asked the man to leave. I don’t know if the naked man was under the influence of something, was suffering from a mental disease of some kind, or just had chosen to be rebellious and go without clothes. But after the usher asked him to leave, the man left... and to my knowledge never bothered that congregation again.
While this happened well before my memory, I have always wondered how I would have responded to an individual like that. I’m fairly confident that the congregation was thankful that their usher asked the man to move along.
Our Gospel Today
The story from our Gospel lesson starts off telling of a man who had been running naked among the tombs. According to the Gospel of Luke, the Gerasenes had captured him man times and put him in jail. But time and time again this man, who seemed to have a super-human strength of sorts, would break out of his shackles and run back into the wild.
And while there was perhaps a sigh of relief on the part of the guards to not have to deal with him 24/7, as soon as he started bothering people at the tombs they’d have to go back out and capture him again and bring him back in chains.
Well, evidently, he had once again slipped his chains and was out on the prowl. And this time, he runs into Jesus. And Jesus does something here that is a bit unusual… he talks to the guy.
Before we know it, this Legion of demons is sent screaming into the nearby swine who challenge the idea as to whether or not pigs can fly… and end up losing their bacon over the cliffside.
Then the word spreads about what has happened and before this man who had been possessed by demons can even start telling his story, people come to the scene of the incident and what do they find?
They find that man who had been naked and wild now sitting quite clothed and in his right mind. Luke tells us that the people were “afraid.” And even further than that, when they hear from the witnesses about how Jesus healed the guy… they don’t offer him a drink but instead they ask Jesus to leave. Jesus is no longer welcome.
And as Jesus leaves, the healed man tries to follow him but Jesus instructs him to go back to the land of the Gerasenes and spread the good word about what God has done for this man. And the man listens, and goes away from Jesus and back to the people.
Why are they afraid?
I often try to understand the motivations of the characters in our Biblical stories. Most of the motivations make sense to me.
Demoniac… first possessed by demons and then, later, proclaims the good news of what Jesus has done for him. I will say it took some guts on his part, though, to go back to the people after he had been healed. Imagine trying to live among these people after running around naked like that and likely committing several crimes. And yet, I think the demoniac’s actions and words are pretty straight forward as far as what is motivating him.
Jesus, too… he’s interested in taking care of and healing this demoniac… and then later he’s interested in the townspeople hearing the Good News as well through the words of this guy that he healed. I will say, I think it’s interesting that Jesus entrusts the former demoniac with such a task of spreading the good news rather than going out and doing it himself. It maybe says something about how Christ entrusts each of us with his message to spread to others as well. But again, for the most part, fairly straight forward.
The pigs… well… I don’t know how many options they had in the story.
Who all is left… ah, yes. The people. Now they are a bit more interesting for motivations. Why, in the end of the story, do we hear them acting not with thanksgiving but with fear? Why are they afraid?
Yes, it is possible that they are afraid of Jesus’ power. If Jesus can control the demons, what else might he do? That sort of thing. Yes, I suppose that could be it.
But perhaps… there is more to the story.
Background: Anti-Roman Cryptograms
You see, there is potentially another layer to this story all together—one that the Jews of Luke’s time would perhaps have recognized but that we would be a bit more challenged to notice.
“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.1 Suddenly an exorcism takes on social and political significance, and Luke’s word choices throughout the story invite a closer look. When the man confronts Jesus, Luke uses a verb that he employs elsewhere of armies meeting in battle (). When the demon “seizes” the man? That’s a verb used elsewhere when Christians are arrested and brought to trial (; ). 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. In short, the language of the whole episode evokes the experience of living under a brutal occupying power.
Furthermore, the region of Gerasene is the setting of a horrifying historical event. According to Josephus, during the late 60s CE, toward the end of the Jewish revolt, the Roman general Vespasian sent soldiers to retake Gerasa (Jewish War, IV,ix,1). 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 Gerasene tombs had been slaughtered by Roman legions.
When the Legion occupying the demoniac encounters Jesus, it begs not to be [returned] to the abyss. Rather surprisingly, Jesus permits Legion to enter into a herd of pigs instead… [which] may well carry a more political meaning also. One of the emblems of Legio 10th Fretensis -- used not only on banners but on everyday objects such as coins and bricks -- was a pig. The 10th Fretensis participated in the siege and destruction of Jerusalem, took the lead in reconquering Palestine, and was stationed in Jerusalem after the war.” – Judith Jones, Working Preacher
Luke’s Gospel, which was written after all of these events had unfolded, quite likely was influenced by those events. While Jesus’ first contact with the demoniac invites us to think about what Jesus has to do with the powers that occupy and control us… the strong possibility is that it speaks not only of an individual being controlled by an entire people.
This extra layer to the text doesn’t take away from either the possession of the man nor does it diminish the healing that takes place. But it does help us understand what is going on for the people.
Despite the fact that the force that caused fear and distrust has now been pushed away, the people still live in fear and distrust.
It leads us to consider the people of our world today who are haunted by traumatic events of the past. People who were forced to struggle economically, racially, mentally, spiritually, sexually… how many are imprisoned not through just literal chains but with the chains placed on them by society. Chains that make those individuals feel somehow less than others.
And, it can lead us to think of how we are occupied and controlled by our own histories. What events in our lives have scarred us so that the way we live and the way we interact with others becomes less than thankful and more fearful?
And as we consider all of these issues of control and occupation, whether its through the form of South American drug cartels pushing fear and anxiety on a vulnerable people or if it’s the scars that we ourselves have endured and still feel the bite from… we see Jesus’ response.
While the Garasenes did their best to lock the demoniac away and out of sight… Jesus engaged him in conversation. Jesus listened to him. Jesus cared for him… loved him even. And in the end, Jesus healed him.
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. He comes so that our scars might be made whole… that we might have new life… not just in some heaven yet to come but even in the here and now.
God’s work in the world is that you might wake up in the morning with shoulders unburdened by yesterday’s hurts. That you may know that whatever you find yourself wrestling with that God is with you in that wrestling. God hears your prayers. God listens to you. God cares for you and yes… God loves you. And in the end, you have the promise that indeed God will bring you healing. Maybe not how you imagined it… but there will be healing.
And we too are challenged through Christ’s example to offer that healing to our neighbors as well. And no, I don’t just mean the neighbors that we feel comfortable with. I mean those that we would perhaps be inclined to have nothing to do with. How might we listen to, care for, love, and offer healing to those whom we would rather turn away from? How might we proclaim that all are truly welcome in this place?
Peace be with you.