This story is a familiar one, one I’ve heard a number of times and thought about a number of times. Jesus comes across someone badly in need of help and healing, he healed them and then goes on to other things. This morning, though, some things about the reading made me stop and see something I probably never noticed before. I love it when that happens.
A lot of times a reading will send me off to reference material to find out more about what it is I just read. I use commentaries, alternate translations, sermons, or articles that I find online. Today I found a sermon by The Rev. Sherry Deets that brought up something I hadn’t really thought of:
Look at the Gerasene Demoniac. Jesus met him at the shore the minute he stepped off the boat. Jesus didn’t come to the middle of town, or into the middle of a settled farmland. He came into the liminal space – the in-between – between town and country, between farmland and desert, between land and sea, between life and death (remember the demoniac lived among the tombs). And Jesus spoke to the man, and the demons, who inhabited that luminal space. That space outside the community.*
I never thought of it before but yeah, what was Jesus doing getting out of the boat at a cemetery? Cemeteries were and can still be places of great superstition. Few people go just to wander around and read the inscriptions, unless they’re looking for someone’s gravesite or perhaps just killing time. It certainly wasn’t a place anyone would really choose to hang around for very long, that is, unless that person were of somewhat unsound mind, had nowhere else to go or perhaps both. Jesus found a man who was only a shadow of his former self, a man so deeply disturbed and damaged that he lived in a city of the dead. Chains wouldn’t hold him, and neither would shackles. He could not live among people; his only companions were the dead, the wild animals and the demons in his head. Jesus was probably the only person who encountered him with anything other than fear, disgust, or malice.
Another thought came to me as I read the passage again. Jesus healed the man before the man even spoke. Jesus got out of the boat and the man ran to him, throwing himself on his knees. Jesus was saying “Come out of him, you unclean spirits!” as he did so, apparently. Mark makes it a bit harder to see by putting the man’s identification of Jesus first, but this time I read it and realized that it was the other way around – Jesus acted and then the man spoke. The demoniac (or the demons within him) recognized a man of power, and when Jesus asked his name, the demons answered “Legion.” Names meant a lot back then; they were messages or indicators of something, just like the children of prophets were often given odd, awkward names dealing with the prophecies their fathers were given. By giving the name Legion, the demoniac (or his demons) gave an indicator that they, like the Roman legions of 2-6,000 men that represented the Roman empire and its control, were oppressors and servants of a corrupt and terrifying presence. By giving Jesus their name, they almost seemed eager to depart, but even if forced to leave their current host they did not want to be banished from their current locale. I don’t know what they thought they would accomplish by asking to be sent into a herd of swine, but that’s what the demons asked for and got. The pigs panicked and headed straight for the water where they subsequently drowned, taking the demons with them (or sending the demons back where they came from, I’m not sure which).
That completed the curing of the demoniac and the healing would be complete when the man returned to his home town and was perceived as once again being a complete, sane human being capable of being reintegrated into and contributing to society. His mission became to spread the good news of what Jesus had done for him among the Greek cities of the Decapolis, a fairly large geographical mission field. There would, however, be something of a shortage of ham, bacon and spare ribs in the area for a while as a result of Jesus’ act.
In today’s world, even though we may not classify them as demoniac, we see the Gerasene man’s brothers and sisters in almost every town and city. Many of them suffer from the result of poor choice or unforeseen circumstance. Many, however, do suffer from mental disease or disorders as well as addictions beyond their control or even sometimes their desire to control. They have seen too much, felt too much, experienced too much for them to handle, or they suffer from internal demons diagnosed as chemical imbalances in the brain. Whatever we choose to call it or believe about it, we generally treat them about the same way people of his home town did with the unnamed man, by stigma, captivity or outright shunning. I doubt very seriously that the demoniac enjoyed his status, nor do our contemporary “demoniacs.” None have or had the ability to heal themselves and society wasn’t/isn’t usually about to help them either. We are afraid of them, whether physically afraid of what they might/could do, or afraid that we will somehow be infected or be contaminated, made unclean and impure by contact with them. Jesus saw beyond the contamination and fear, but then, he was Jesus. He could do a lot of things ordinary human beings couldn’t do. What he did do that we are also able to do, if we are open and willing, is to see beyond the exterior manifestations and see the child of God that lurks below the surface, in the very breath of the body and the imprint of the Spirit.
Pastor Deets stated in her sermon something I think is important for me to remember as I think about the demoniac and the places he and his descendants inhabit. “We may…be called to seek out those dark places- not simply to bring the light of Christ’s love there, but to meet Christ there ourselves.” Isn’t that what we are all called to do as Christians and as children of God ourselves? Isn’t it our job to work toward not just the healing of the earth but the healing of God’s children as well?
Now to figure out how to do my part in all this.
*Deets, The Rev. Sherry, The Gerasene Demoniac, a sermon preached 6/24/2007 at the Episcopal Church of the Trinity, Coatesville, PA. The full sermon can be found at Trinity Episcopal Church sermonsQuotations used with permission.