|"The Gerasene Demoniac" Sebastian Boudon (1653)|
I imagine a lot of people who are already a little skeptical about the reality of some of the stories in the Bible probably hear this one from Luke’s gospel about Jesus visiting the country of the Gerasenes and it puts them right over the edge (pun intended). It contains so many factors that stretch the limits of believability that many people just say, “No way. Someone made up this craziness. There’s no way this really happened or this world really existed.”
I know that even for me, any story that includes a demon possession automatically makes me scratch my head a bit. It seems to be more like the stuff of Hollywood horror flicks---grand but dark imaginations that stray far from the world of facts—than the telling of a true story. After all, we come from a time when very few people, or so we think, receive a diagnosis of demon-possession. Things like that have been explained in terms more acceptable to us now thanks to modern medicine, Freud, and pharmaceuticals. Not only that, but these are no ordinary demons, even by Bible standards. These demons talk out loud! They even have a name, which is weird, and they shout at Jesus when he comes near, as if they know exactly who he is and that he spells danger to them.
The weirdness doesn’t stop with the demons and their voices. There’s this part about the pigs running down the hill and plunging into the sea to their deaths. I mean, what did the pigs ever do? Where is PETA when we need them? It’s a genu-swine case of scape-pigging: the poor hogs don’t have anything at all to do with the demons, but they get tagged with all the ill effects and run out of town.
To make things even harder to believe, the man, of course, is healed instantly (when does that ever happen?!?), and we hear that in the span of one moment he goes from being a man bound by chains in public, living in the tombs, and driven into the margins of society to a man freed from torment, sitting placidly at the feet of Jesus the next. Yes, it is altogether reasonable that we, from our cool, rationalist and scientific perspective, would judge this story—this event, this world these people are telling us about—as totally crazy, unbelievable, and…if real…then a terrible place to be.
And yet, I wonder what a person from first-century Gerasene would say if they could look at just one or two weeks from the 21st-century America. They’d probably say, “Look! That’s a totally unrealistic world! Somebody’s making these stories up! It looks like they’ve got demons everywhere! Practically no one is in their right mind! For one thing, a few of them, every so often, will walk into churches, schools, bars, movie theaters, and shoot people. Then everyone else has this amazing, immediate ability through this strange power they call social media to let thousands of other people know what they’re thinking as they think it. They rush to judgment about each other and drive all kinds of people to the margins of society, except they don’t use chains and shackles anymore, but labels and unfair judgments and uninformed opinions. They scape-pig, or scapegoat, like it’s going out of style, blaming everything on everyone else, especially if they look or act different. Their religious leaders are often the worst at this! They all act like they’ve become experts in every matter, and although this ability to Tweet, post, and communicate digitally with each other should be bringing them together, it more often than not causes them to retreat into like-minded camps so that all they really listen to is those who already agree with them! And…look at all the bacon they eat! They’re concerned about this one herd, but look at the conditions they raise their livestock in to support their pork habit! There is no way a world like that could exist! And if it does, it sounds terrible!”
God’s creation is broken. Whether we view it through 1st century eyes or 21st century eyes, we can pretty quickly reach the conclusion that there is a whole lot of pain and heartache in the world, that things are not as they should be, that we are separated from each other by all kinds of anger and mistrust. Yes, there is good too, but sometimes the evil is just too overwhelming. Whether it is on a global scale, like the legions of atrocities of the so-called Islamic State, Boko Haram, or the gangs of central America…or whether it’s national, like the tragedies in Orlando and last year’s Charleston shooting…or local, like the tragic death Friday night of a beloved Godwin teacher and mentor, we are stunned by its presence and terrified by our vulnerability. Whether it raises its head in specific, violent events or whether it lurks like an undertow beneath the surface of everything in currents of racism and prejudice it still does immeasurable damage to us.
The issue with the land of the Gerasenes, which was a shadowy country of non-Jews lying somewhere across Lake Galilee from the region where Jesus and his disciples grew up, is that they seem to have gotten very accustomed to the presence of evil. It terrifies them, for sure. They try to shackle it and keep it under guard, even if it keeps breaking loose and causing trouble. People who are consumed by self-destructive impulses no one can control are so feared that they are allowed to live only at the margins. However, once such people are freed from their affliction, once Jesus makes this man whole and places him in his right mind, the people of Gerasene don’t rejoice or look for more healing. They become seized with great fear. They don’t know how to handle this sudden gift of freedom and peace. They don’t all suddenly draw nearer to Jesus, amazed by his power to overthrow the evil in their midst. That’s what usually happens. No, the Gerasenes ask Jesus to leave.
|Mother Emanuel AME Church, Charleston|
I was recently speaking with someone who was going through a tough time. She was talking about the tendency, whenever she was dealing with difficult challenges and loss, to look at what others were going through and momentarily wish she could trade places. The grass, I suppose, is always looks less brown in someone else’s yard. But whenever she’d complain this way as a kid, this person’s mother always used to tell her that if everyone were to toss all their troubles into one pile, people would still go through and pick theirs out.
That’s the Gerasenes, I suppose. They’ve gotten used to living with all the brokenness in their own way. They’ve made space for it, even if that space was at the edge of society and not entirely controllable. Some biblical historians say that the Gerasenes were more concerned with the economic loss from the lost pig herd than with the healing of the man. Others say that their rejection of Jesus shows that his mission is still, at least for the moment, primarily to the sons and daughters of Israel. Whatever the case, it’s pretty clear that the Gerasene people see Jesus and his ministry of restoring wholeness and placing people back into community with one another as some kind of a threat. They don’t want new struggles, even if they are positive. They like status quo. They’re quite content to keep things as they are, even if it means that some people have to bear the brunt of the world’s brokenness more than others.
And here Jesus does something we might think at first strange: he actually leaves. He turns immediately around, for he has just gotten off the boat, and goes back to Galilee. He doesn’t force himself and his viewpoints on the Gerasenes, he doesn’t tell them they’re wrong, he doesn’t talk smack about them. He shows true strength by letting go and true compassion by honoring their desires.
But he does not leave them unchanged. The man who is now in his right mind is denied the opportunity to come with Jesus and instead told to stay home. The Gerasenes may still be content to live with their status quo, but in their midst now is someone who has been set free, someone who has experienced the power of the gospel. He’s like the reverse of a scape-goat. In a scape-goat scenario you pin all the troubles to one person or one group and let them pay the price for everyone’s sin, running them out of the village or the country. Here, all the hope and joy of new life in Jesus is given to one man and he is sent back into the community with a mission to share it. He becomes an icon of hope in a land of fear, a storyteller in a land that doesn’t want to listen, a believer in a land of doubt, a lover in land of hate.
Sometimes I sense we are overwhelmed by what’s going on in the world today. It’s like everyone is dumping out all their troubles and the pile has gotten far too large. We know ours are in there, but they seem in some way connected to it all. No one seems to have any decent answers for which directions we’re supposed to take, which makes it all the easier to fall into the trap of wanting to go back to the way things were, whatever that means. But today I know I’m looking at dozens of storytellers, a hundred or so of icons of hope who have been set free by God’s grace. Today Jesus’ boat has landed once again on the shore of this strange land filled with demons and with his love and forgiveness he is putting us in our right mind. On the cross he is taking on the brokenness of the whole world, and running headlong off the cliff of despair into the abyss for us.
And now I suppose you could say we are all reverse scape goats, running off to wherever “home” may be with the task simply to talk about what God has done for us. No one can argue with that, even on Facebook! No one can argue with what you say God has done for you. We all run out into communities that are sorely divided, and talk about a Savior who gathers a community where divisions have no proper place, where folks are no longer slave or free, or Gerasene or Galilean, or male and female. It’s a place where the undertow of racism and class or gender distinctions are to be wiped away. We are sent out by Jesus into a 21st century crazy, unbelievable world that is susceptible just to make space for its legions of demons and point, insistently, but not coercively to the One who will overthrow them.
And soon and very soon we will be living in the kingdom—not of Gerasene, but the kingdom of God—belonging to Christ, heirs according to his promise. And all of creation will be like that hymn we sang, where every line and every life will end with the words, “May Jesus Christ be praised, may Jesus Christ be praised!”
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.