At first glance, today’s Gospel reading from Luke might seem about as plausible and relatable as Rosemary’s Baby or The Exorcist. The language about demons and exorcism does not enhance the credibility factor and so we might think that there isn’t much here that addresses our lives in the world or is relevant to our walks of faith. At first glance. But once I got past the demon language, I was overwhelmed by the flood of wisdom and relevance for our lives.
In our time together now, I want you to take this trip with me. I’m going to guide you through what there is to take away from this passage and I want you to pay attention to the things that resonate for you personally. Pay attention to them and remember them and at the end we will take a moment to see and consider Christ’s response to us.
First let’s deal with the demon language. Commentaries point out that very often in ancient times, mental health was explained as a consequence of demon possession. For our purposes today, that is going to be a little too narrow a parameter. Let’s say that demon possession is the thing or things that separate us from God, leave us powerless, and cause devastating destruction.
If that seems a little over the top, remember the demoniac—a man without an identity, without a community (except the voices in his head), without clothes or a home, a person devoid of dignity and unable to stop hurting himself.
Right away I think this man starts to become someone we can recognize. Have we not all had moments when we’ve forgotten who or what we are, when we’ve said or done things that later we think, “That really wasn’t me”? And what about the times we’ve been cut off from our community because of a family riff or maybe a divorce; the times when we’ve lost our support systems because of some break in relationship? Then there are times when we’ve lost or been deprived of the things that sustain us in life—maybe we couldn’t buy food or pay our bills, maybe those we relied on to provide for us didn’t come through and we’ve been driven to the edge because we couldn’t see a way out. And how about the things we’ve embraced, the things we can’t seem to say ‘no’ to, that bring only heartache and devastation; the things that make us feel powerless. If you are one of the lucky ones listening who has never experienced anything like what I’ve just described, then I can only say one thing, “I’d like to be you!”
I’m just kidding! Actually, I don’t think I would trade in the experiences I’ve had, although many of them I’d like never to repeat, for 2 reasons. First, God has always met me most powerfully in those places, and second, I have been shaped by God’s grace and love in the midst of them to become the person I am now.
So moving along, back to the story—Jesus crosses the sea and confronts a demoniac. I mention the crossing of the sea, because the story right before this is the one in which Jesus is asleep in the boat and while he’s sleeping a terrifying storm comes upon them. The disciples wake him up and are afraid for their lives. Jesus calms the storm and the place they land is this country of the Gerasenes. This matters for a couple of reasons. The first is because in entering the country of the Gerasenes, Luke is letting us know that this is the first time Jesus has entered into Gentile territory. The man he heals, the villagers herding pigs and those living in the town are Gentiles. Here we see that the good news, the gospel, is for the Jews and for non-Jews. Jesus has gone out of his way to free this man and to offer the hope of restoration to these people.
It also can be offered as a bit of an explanation to the animal activists among us. Of course it seems cruel for a herd of pigs to go barreling over a cliff and drown, but perhaps we can keep in mind that to the Jews, pigs were not to be eaten or touched because they were forbidden in the Law. Therefore they were of no worth. Those herding pigs would not have been Jews nor would those be who cared that they’d perished. As with all stories, we must be mindful of context.
Jesus has made this journey, commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man and the man says two extraordinary things. He begs Jesus not to torment him, and he tells Jesus that his name is “Legion.” How many people here think of Jesus as the Tormenter? Exactly. He is the Savior and the healer not only for us but also for this man, so why on earth does he think Jesus is there to torment him?
The demoniac gives voice to the fear and confusion many of us have around the pain involved in a cure. Huh? you say? Well how about chemotherapy for example? Or talk to someone recovering from frostbite. Apparently the pain is so intense when the circulation starts to re-enter the limbs that in the moment, people have asked for amputation instead. Healing very often involves terrible pain, physically and emotionally. Look at those trying to heal from emotional wounds—they have the daunting task of facing their brokenness and casting off the illusions and barriers they’ve created that have helped them survive. To be stripped of what we’ve always known is terrifying even if it means living with something that has crippled our lives. In this context, it’s not hard at all to understand why the demoniac sees Jesus as someone less than beneficent.
The story goes on to say that when Jesus asked his name he said it was “Legion” because many demons had entered him. In ancient times the degree of sickness was directly linked to the number of demons—remember the woman with seven demons that Jesus healed? Well this man is almost a thousand times worse off. The word “legion” was Latin for an army division of about 6,000, which is a pretty graphic way to portray the extent of his fractured personality. This man really needed help. The people he lived with thought he was beyond hope and the only way to really help him was to chain him up—for his own good! It is this man that Jesus crossed a boundary for, to restore him to himself and to his community by giving him back his sanity.
And finally, let’s look at what happened when Jesus healed him and he was found sitting at Christ’s feet fully dressed and in his right mind. Were the people relieved to see that his torment was over? Did they rejoice and throw a party? No, instead a terrible fear seized them and they were afraid. Now if you know anything about Family Systems Theory, this won’t surprise you. In FST you look at the interdependence of family members instead of focusing on individuals in isolation from the family. In this case, the demoniac would be the identified patient and a system had risen up to support that. He’s the crazy one and everyone else is sane. He’s the one that needs to be restrained and they are ones that do the restraining. Everyone knows their role and their place but what happens when you change that dynamic? The whole system goes into crisis. Who people are and their place in the system changes, and let’s face it, change is scary, so they were afraid.
I just want to point out that in every miraculous story we’ve heard recently, the people have responded with fear. After Jesus raised the widow’s son in Nain, the people were afraid. When Jesus calmed the storm, the disciples were afraid. When Jesus cast out the legion of demons the villagers were afraid. Fear seems to be the normal and natural response to a display of overwhelming supernatural power. However, fear doesn’t always have the final word. When the widow’s son was raised the people feared and then glorified God. When Jesus calmed the storm the disciples feared and marveled in worshipful awe at who Jesus is. But when Jesus freed the demonic the villagers feared and asked him to leave, which he did.
Take a moment now to recall anything that you’ve seen in yourself or in others from this story. We can be assured that how Jesus was while he walked the earth is even more so now that he is ascended and present with us by the Holy Spirit, so let’s see what we can glean about Jesus’ response to us.
We see that Jesus will cross any boundary to free any person from the power and destruction of evil in order to restore them to God, themselves, and each other.
Jesus truly is the healer even if the cure makes him seem like the tormenter. We can trust that everything he does for us is so that we can sit with him, and live lives in which we are in our right minds and have peaceful hearts.
Our problems and the evil in the world can at times seem ‘legion’ but there is nothing bigger than God’s love or more powerful than his Holy Spirit at work in us.
No matter what poverty of spirit or propensity for self-destruction, Jesus will not let us define ourselves by our affliction or tragedy. He came to free us from everything that keeps us from being who we fully are and living the lives God intended for us.
In grateful response, let us pray again the Collect of the Day: Dear God, make us have perpetual love and reverence for your holy Name, for you never fail to help and govern those whom you have set upon the sure foundation of your loving-kindness. Thank you for your tremendous love perfected in Jesus and sustained by your Spirit.