“Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear.” Luke 8:37
Are you afraid?
I am. I am afraid for our community and our nation. I fear for the future of the world. I am especially afraid this morning for our immigrant neighbors. While the Administration has delayed for two weeks its promised mass immigration raids across the country, the fear of many of our neighbors has not lessened. Many of the targeted families have lived here most of their lives and risk death if returned to their countries of origin. Many analysts agree that the primary goal of this campaign is to terrorize immigrants who have come here seeking better lives. Meanwhile, the expansion of and wretched conditions in the places where immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers are being held continue to worsen. I am full of fear, not just for the fate of all those people but for our nation.
At the same time, as if this weren’t already too much, we seem to be on the brink of another war, this time with Iran. It’s not enough that we have been at war for 18 years now in Afghanistan and Iraq. It isn’t enough that we have seen the deaths of hundreds of thousands, the devastation of whole nations, and see daily the effects of the war on returning veterans. The prospects of war with Iran, a much larger and more populous nation than either Iraq or Afghanistan, and one with significant military capacity, is a frightening thing.
Those larger fears can affect us powerfully; and many of us have been in a state of fear or anxiety going on years. But there are also personal fears that beset us, fear for our families, for jobs, for our futures. We worry about catastrophic illness, for example.
Fear is a powerful emotion. It can lead us to do things we might not have been able to otherwise, it can change our personalities and the way we look at life. It can overwhelm our rational faculties, rendering us incapable of making wise decisions. It can lead us to strike out. It can blind us to the humanity of people we don’t know or who different than us. It can even lead us to abandon our most cherished values and principles.
There is a great deal of fear in our gospel reading today. There is the fear of the unknown and the demonic that compelled a man to live in the tombs, to be bound and shackled to protect the community from his rages. There is the fear of the demons when Jesus encounters them; and the demons’ fear of returning to the abyss. There is the fear of the swineherds and townspeople when they learn of Jesus’ power over demons and his ability to restore the man to his right mind. And we see the effects of fear—as the demons in fear enter the herd of swine, and instead of returning to the abyss, the pigs drown in the lake. The townspeople’s fear leads them to reject Jesus and the possibility of new life for themselves, and return to their old lives, their old world.
This story, the healing of the Gerasene demoniac is the lengthiest of all such exorcism stories in the gospels. Its details and language invite deeper inquiry and exploration. Its rich symbolism operates on several levels—personal psychology, the dynamics of religious difference, imperial occupation, and cosmic conflict between Jesus and demonic forces are all worthwhile avenues of discovery.
It begins rather simply, un-dramatically. Having crossed over the Sea of Galilee, though that in itself was full of drama because they were caught up in a storm during their crossing and Jesus miraculously calmed it, Jesus steps out on land and is confronted by this man possessed by demons. But when Jesus steps out on land, it is the first time he enters largely Gentile territory in the Gospel of Luke (the presence of a herd of pigs makes that obvious). He and his disciples have crossed over the Sea of Galilee, and at the end of the story, they will return to Galilee. It’s almost as if the point of the journey was the encounter with this man.
Then there is the demoniac. His description: naked, living among the tombs, is the description of someone who has lost his identity. He has no home, no family, no place in society. He might as well be dead, which may be one reason he’s living among the tombs. But in that description, we may be reminded not only of people who suffer from mental illness, but it may be an apt description of some of the homeless men and women who walk the streets of Madison.
There’s something a bit odd about the description of the exorcism. In verse 29, Luke tells us that Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. It’s only later, after Jesus asks his name that he seems to be able to cast the demons out.
And that name, “Legion.” With that reference, we are no longer dealing simply with an encounter between Jesus and a possessed man. Legion in the first century can only mean one thing—the Roman Army. Coincidentally, the legion based in the area of Gerasa in the first century had as its symbol a boar. During the Jewish Revolt of the 60s, Gerasa was the site of a brutal massacre. The Romans killed a thousand young men, imprisoned their families, burned the city, and then attacked villages throughout the region. Many of those buried in Gerasene tombs had been slaughtered by Roman legions.
While the symbolism of Jesus’ confrontation with the forces of Roman Empire is important, we shouldn’t lose sight of the larger battle here. Because Jesus’ encounter with the possessed man is not simply a healing story or a symbol of the conflict between the Kingdom of God and the kingdoms of this world, it is also a cosmic battle between Jesus and the forces of Evil.
To explore all of these levels of meaning is not to downplay the importance of the healing, or of the man who is restored to himself and to his family. Instead, it invites us to think about all of the ways that Jesus confronts the forces in the world that claim our allegiance and bind us in possession to them.
As Americans, we live with the powerful myth that everyone can succeed in life and that if we don’t it is somehow our fault. But there are forces far beyond our control: racism, sexism, an economic system that rewards the winners and punishes everyone else, student debt, a healthcare system that threatens many with bankruptcy. Here in Madison, we have a crisis of affordable housing—average rents increased by 14% last year. The chains that bind us, the demons that possess us are powerful indeed.
Yet Jesus comes to challenge those demons and break those chains. He comes to free us from all those forces that prevent us from living fully in God’s image, that prevent us from flourishing. Many of us are like those townspeople who feared Jesus’ power and feared the freedom that he offered. May we abandon our fear and like the Gerasene demoniac, may we know the true freedom of relationship with Jesus Christ, and may we proclaim that power of that freedom to the world.