An uncomfortable story

Download a pdf of this sermon suitable for printing.

Reverend Rebecca Newland
Pentecost 5C, 23 June 2013

1 Kings 19:1-4 (5-7) 8-15a and Psalms 42 and 43 or Isaiah 65:1-9 and Psalm 22:20-29; Galatians 3:10-14, 23-39; Luke 8:26-39

When I was a young girl I remember my father saying to me, "what about those poor pigs in the gospel? What had they ever done to anyone? And what about the poor pig herders? Their whole herd drowned in the sea?!" Back then I had no answer for Dad. He named the strangeness of this story and his compassion for the pigs and pig keepers obscured everything else. For there much more to this story than meets the eye or ear and many ways we can look at this story.

For a start there is the fact that by the time Luke was writing his account of this healing miracle there had been a major massacre at the place where the story is set. A major massacre. Luke wrote his gospel after 70 A.D. In 67 A.D. Gerasa was the location of a Jewish revolt brutally put down by the Roman Army. Vespasian's general, Lucius Annius, slaughtered 1,000 rebels who were besieged in Gerasa and then destroyed it and surrounding villages. It is suggested by some scholars that hidden in this encounter between Jesus and the Gerasene man possessed is a political statement about Roman oppression. The man possessed is called by the Latin name "Legion," referring to a company of up to 6,000 Roman soldiers. The association of a Roman legion with a herd of pigs was in fact a priceless piece of irony. Politics and the liberation of the oppressed is one lens by which we can look at this story.

Another is the social plight of this afflicted man. He wore no clothes which not only indicated that he was so unbalanced and unwell that he could not take care of himself but that he had lost the right to wear clothes. According to the old laws, slaves, prostitutes, demented people and damned people were people that had lost all normal rights. The fact that he lived among the tombs meant that he was also ritually unclean. Whether or not this person was possessed by demons is debatable, particularly as we look back with our knowledge of mental illness, but what seems very clear is that he lived in abject poverty and exclusion with a mind that was chaotic and confused.

It is the social exclusion that is perhaps the most tragic aspect of his case. However he is not just excluded. He is chained up by his neighbors supposedly to keep both he and they safe. Social exclusion, the binding up, the locking away, the shutting down are still ways we deal with people who we find difficult, confronting and do not fit with our patterns of normality. We use the terms "crazy" and "insane" frequently to label those with whom we disagree. We bind others with a variety of chains these days. Some are in our prisons. People with mental illness, drug addictions, refugee backgrounds and indigenous heritage are all over represented in our prison system. Others are on our streets. Some have been bound with chains of debt, accrued through the scourge of gambling, others are in the thrall of alcohol or drugs.

Another way to look at this healing miracle is to consider it with the other miracle Jesus has just performed. The same dynamic underlies both of them. In the passage that leads up to our story Jesus has just calmed the raging and terrifying sea. The sea in Jewish scripture is a metaphor for chaos. Some scholars believe that the two stories, taken together, mirror elements of Psalm 65 where the psalmist condemns the chaotic, violent foreign powers while praying for them to be calmed and included within the blessings of Israel. Psalm 65:7 says, "You silence the roaring of the seas, the roaring of their waves, the tumult (or madness) of the peoples." The psalmist praises God's power to calm the seas, primordial metaphor for chaos, and to overcome the power of the furious foreigners who were threatening Israel. The two stories of exorcism—the Gerasene Demoniac and the miracle of the calming of the sea—speak of Jesus' power and authority to liberate the world from oppression and chaos.

What I personally don't think is that this is a story about demon possession, although that is what it appears. There is evil in this story. There is even perhaps a Satanic presence but the evil is the evil found in us, in our societies and the way we order our lives and the lives of others. It is about the evil of political and social oppression. It is about the evil that comes from the fragmentation of our communities and our own psyches.

Standing in this scene of chaos and oppression, illness and fear is the compelling figure of Jesus. Just as he has calmed the raging sea, he restores order and wholeness to the possessed man. He is now in his right mind, he has come to his senses and is sitting at the feet of Jesus. It is what happens next that should alert us to the fact that this is a story about communities and relationships as much as it is a story about demon possession and healing.

The people from Gerasene, who witness this healing are now full of fear and they ask Jesus to go away. One would think the people would be overjoyed yet they are not. I can see why. Here is a power greater than the power of evil. Here is a power that has turned their world upside. Before Jesus turns up these people knew the locus of evil, knew where the man lived and spent a lot of time and expense trying to guard and control him. Although the man was a pest and a problem he was their problem that they controlled. Having this man as the problem would no doubt have kept the focus off their own lives. I sometimes think this is a terrible trap of Christian charity and care. We can use the commandment to love others as a way to avoid looking at our own lives. In the name of Christian love we avoid making the necessary changes and decisions that help God bring healing and wholeness to ourselves, and this is how we like it… trying to rescue, change and control other people instead of ourselves. It is confronting to shift ones focus inwards. This happens when an alcoholic gets sober. They get sober but the family and primary relationships start to fall apart.

In Christ Jesus the power of good came to this Gerasene community and it disturbs a way of life they had come to accept. Even when it is good power that can neither be calculated nor managed it is frightening. The power of Jesus is no light weight matter. The healing and wholeness that comes from following him and making him the light of your life is that what was hidden in the darkness is exposed. His light exposes the lies we tell ourselves. It reveals our own attempts to control and manipulate others.

The other reason the people are uneasy is because of the economic problem this healing presents. As my father rightly pointed out, 'what about the pig owners and their livelihood?' The gospel does challenge our economics because healings, conversions and the embrace of Christian ethics radically influence our getting and spending. The Gerasene people are not praising God that the man is healed; they are counting the cost and find it too much. The fear of a good power they cannot control and the fear that what they have will be spent in the service of that goodness mean that these people ask Jesus to leave.

This is a story that is meant to make us, like the Gerasene community, very uncomfortable. My father was certainly right to find it disturbing. Although the story ends with the man restored and in his right mind it leaves us questioning and wondering about our own misuse of power and labels. It leaves us challenged about how much cost we are willing to expend for the goodness of the gospel. It leaves us asking, are we like the man restored to wholeness sitting at the feet of Jesus, willing to follow him and prepared to proclaim his good news or are we like the towns people who ask him to go away and leave us? Which one are you? Have you counted the cost? Are you willing to risk all for the path of the Nazarene?

My friends, let us pray….