Late last night, a homeless man sleeping on Capitol Square was severely beaten. According to news reports, he suffered life-threatening injuries. I learned about this while I was studying and reflecting on the gospel story for Sunday–Jesus’ exorcism of the Gerasene demoniac. He too was homeless, without a house. In the ancient world that meant he was without family or property, a given identity, and a place from which to exercise his personal and communal rights and responsibilities, his moral obligations.
The possessed man is described in pitiable detail–he wore no clothes; he didn’t live in a house but in the tombs. He was kept under guard, bound with chains and shackles but when the demon overcame him, he would break his bonds and run into the wilderness. To twenty-first century readers, this description sounds like mental illness.
On one level, the story of this exorcism is very alien to us. Most of us don’t think we inhabit a world in which demons possess people or could be driven out and forced to possess a herd of pigs. But at the same time, this man’s description is not all that strange. We are accustomed to see people dressed in rags and tatters on the streets of our city. Sometimes they have mental illness that creates awkward moments for us when they begin speaking to us as we pass by. We would prefer that they be anywhere except on the busy sidewalks of downtown Madison.
There’s more to the story I heard today that I’m sure we will learn in the days to come–who the victim was, perhaps who attacked him and why. And I don’t want to imply in any way that the victim could be compared to the possessed man in the gospel story, except in this way: both were homeless and outcast from society.
Jesus does much more in this story than cast out a demon. He restores the man to society to his family. He is healed, saved, made whole. The text describes him clothed, of sound mind, and sitting at Jesus’ feet. The latter tells us he has become a disciple. He wants to follow Jesus but Jesus tells him that he has a different mission–to return to his home and declare what God has done for him.
Today, as I was thinking of homeless men and possessed men, and about living in tombs, I was reminded of another reference to tombs in the gospel–not the burial place of Jesus, but rather Mt. 23:27
For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth
In this verse and the discourse from which it comes Jesus is contrasting the outward appearance of righteousness with internal hypocrisy. My question this afternoon is: Who is living in the tombs? Is it the homeless man, the demoniac, or is it us?