June 23, 2013

Fifth Sunday after Pentecost Year C

He is a tortured man! His hair is tossed and tousled. His beard appears shaggy and matted with debris. His eyes stare saucer-like and hypnotic, betraying his clueless dilemma. He beats and cuts himself with sharp rocks until blood flows, clots, and flows again. Blue bruises dot his skin like a leopard's spots.
He lives in the cemetery. Gerasene citizens try to contain him, but their shackles and chains crack and break by his strange and superior strength. There is no containing or controlling this one.

But it’s not the fantastic details that catch my eye, or my heart, not the chains and fetters, or the number of swine, but the man hidden in the center of the story, the man possessed by all those demons. He is somebody we all have seen, somebody we may know. And he’s somebody who asks us to look at ourselves.

He’s a man who has lost himself. He had been “a man of the city” known to his neighbors, a member of the community. But now he lives in death, “among the tombs” Luke says, out beyond the city walls.  He has nothing, no home, no clothes, no name anymore. He has no voice. When he opens his mouth, only the shrieks of the demonic come out. He is lost to himself and shattered into unrecognizable pieces of his former humanity. He is at the mercy of powers beyond his control, driven to the brink of existence.

In Luke’s telling, Jesus runs into this man just as he gets off the boat—he’s just sailed over from Galilee, and it was a stormy crossing. In the face of that storm, Jesus is the source of calm. And now here’s another storm, swirling around this man who cries out to Jesus. And what does Jesus do? Jesus reaches through his raging craziness and asks, “What is your name?”

Jesus tries to give the man an identity and the healing begins. It’s not the details of that healing that make this story worth re-telling, it’s the human reach, and touch, at the heart of it. As in almost all the healing stories, Jesus reaches across the cultural taboos against illness and culture—he even travels across the sea, beyond the familiar Jewish territory of Galilee to the Gentile area of the Gerasenes.  Jesus reaches across the isolation and separation so characteristic of illness and culture, and calms the storms in this man, speaking to him and treating him like a human being.

And here’s where the story becomes our story—if it wasn’t already. We see the man sitting at Jesus’ feet, demoniac-turned-disciple, “clothed and calm in his mind” Luke tells us. We have a living, breathing example of what Jesus was talking about in his first sermon at Nazareth, when he said that he had come to release those in bondage and liberate the oppressed. And we have a choice about how to respond.

In the story, the people from the town respond with fear. The unexpected has happened in their midst and they don’t like it. They pack Jesus back into his boat and wave him off with relief. Too much change when he’s around; best to keep a lid on things. So that’s one choice we have, in the face of the unexpected: fear, and a return to the familiar, even when it means the chains that bind us. Sometimes we prefer the devil we know to the unknown freedom God offers.

The man restored to wholeness responds in another way. He becomes a disciple. He wants to go with Jesus, but Jesus sends him off, to tell his story of healing. And so he goes, embracing his new life and proclaiming the good news of God’s liberation.

Biblical scholar Jeffrey Johns sums up a key insight: "The miracle story is not just about a personal exorcism. It is about the promise of God's ability to defeat and re-order the disordered powers that afflict individuals and communities." The demoniac is called by the Latin name "Legion," referring to a company of up to 6,000 Roman soldiers. This suggests that Luke linked the exorcism of the evil powers occupying the demoniac with acts of Roman oppression. The demons' preference for pigs is because of the animal's negative association in Judaism. The association of a Roman legion with a herd of pigs was a priceless piece of irony not lost on Luke’s audience.

Luke identifies Roman military might with the supernatural powers that are behind all systems of violent oppression. Today we would want to refer the demoniac for immediate treatment for multiple schizophrenia, but here possession is a symbol of the oppression of one culture by another. Personal exorcism becomes symbolic of corporate liberation from oppression. The exorcism breaks the demonic spell that keeps the individual dependent upon the dominant power. As we hear the hooves of the pigs clicking toward the sea, the message is that even the power of Rome will ultimately be no match for the liberating power of God in Christ.

The same dynamic underlies the calming of the sea, which precedes this exorcism in Luke. The two stories speak to Jesus' power and authority to liberate the world from oppression and chaos.

Here in Gentile territory, the demon shouts the question at Jesus: "What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?" Here the demon uses a Gentile mode of addressing Israel's God. Knowing your opponent's name was regarded as a means of establishing dominance. The demons seek to establish dominance over Jesus by stating his name. Jesus demands their name and they submit to him.

We might well ask ourselves, "Can we accurately name the demons in our own lives and that of our community?" The next logical question is: "Do we believe that he has that authority to evict and eventually destroy our demons?" There is a sense in which each of us could look in the mirror and say, "My name is Legion, for we are many."

Jesus confronts the power of evil, namely the power that destroys and devastates human lives. Fear captured the people of the land of Gerasenes when Jesus evicts the demonic from a man’s life. The healing power they witnessed was the presence of God’s reign brought to bear on that which would destroy life. It frightened them. They ask Jesus to leave. He abides by their request but the man who was freed from his long and lonely days of isolation and terror went about telling anyone who would listen how much God had done for him.

We need to be clear of this one thing. It is, “How much God has done.”  We bear the message of freedom from fear and isolation, but it is God in Christ who is the means of freedom.