If I’d been living in the land of the Gerasenes in the early days of the first century I would have been glad of the crazy man who lived out in the tombs. You know why? Because whatever happened to me, at least I wasn’t that guy. If my business failed, or it I went to jail, or my kids turned out bad… Well, at least I wasn’t that guy. Know what I mean?
If I’d lived there, been part of that community, there would have been a lot of things that defined me. It would have been all “intersectional,” as the intellectuals like to say. But, at least a part of my identity would have been that I wasn’t that guy out in the tombs, the one who cut himself, and threw himself in the fire. In the eyes of everyone else I would have always been at least one step up from rock bottom, all because I wasn’t that guy. Whew… Thanks God for that guy.
Identity is part of the story we read today, and it’s something we’ve talked about before. Today’s story goes something like this:
Jesus and the disciples were just off a hair-raising trip across the Sea of Galilee in which the boat they were in nearly capsized. Fortunately, Jesus did a miracle and saved the day. The disciples were really amazed by it too. They said that it was almost like they didn’t know Jesus at all, “Who IS this guy,” they said. “Even the wind and the waves obey him.” But, as soon as they got to the other side of the sea they were met by a man who knew exactly who Jesus was. Immediately he called out, “Jesus, Son of the Most High God… What do you want? Are you here to torment me?” He said that because there were tormentors inside of him who could not stand to be in the presence of Jesus. Jesus said to the man, “What is your name?”
That’s not really the end of the story, but let’s stop there anyway. This is an adversarial situation. It’s the Son of God v. Emissaries of the Devil. You just know Jesus is going to win, right? But, instead of coming out swinging, Jesus came out with a question. “What is your name?”
In ancient times knowing someone’s name told you a lot about them, and it gave you power over them. It may have told you where they were from, and certainly who their father was. You may remember other Bible stories where someone got a new name. It happens where there is a shift in their identity. That’s what Jesus is getting at. He is actually asking, “Who are you? Do you want to be someone else?”
If Jesus asked you that question, what would you say? Beyond John, or Mary, or Abdullah, or Sidra, how would you name yourself? Maybe your name is Joy or Contentment. That’s great. But there are still a lot of tormentors out there. Some people still call them demons, some people think they are too “scientific” for that. But, the tormentors are there. We can agree on that. The Bible says that they roam around looking for someone to eat up with worry, or dread, or memories, or catastrophes that might happen. Most of us have a few. Some of us have a lot. Would your tormentors identify you? Would you say, “I am an addict,” or “I am afraid,” or “I am wracked with pain, or guilt, or hopelessness…” whatever it might be?
Jesus is not in the business of telling us who we should be. He let’s us define ourselves. In the story, the man defines himself as “Legion,” because there were a lot of what the Bible calls demons inside of him. But, let’s see if we can imagine what the man might have said if Jesus had asked him today, and not 2000 years ago:
“They call me legion because there are a lot of things that torment me. I can’t sleep at night and so I come to this place within myself that is dead and I scream and cut myself because I don’t know what else to do. My friends have tried to rope me into their polite society, but I just can’t take it. I’m not made for that. I come to this wild and dead place because being crazy is one less thing to worry about when I’m out here.”
And the voices, and memories, and fears that tormented the man couldn’t stand to be in the presence of Jesus, because Jesus is made of love. So the man continued, “Now, just leave me alone. This is the most peace I’ll get in this life. So, you go! You’re tormenting me.”
Jesus didn’t go, though. He stayed with the man in the tombs until the tormentors couldn’t stand it anymore and begged to go into a herd of pigs. After that, the pigs charged down a hill and into the sea where they drowned like Pharos’s army in the Red Sea. Destruction was all they had ever known and it was all they could do. The people in the village then became as possessed as the man had been and they too asked Jesus to leave them alone. Honestly, it should be an opera.
Here’s the good news, and you don’t have to hit a high C to get it: Jesus is made out of the same stuff as his father, just like we talked about last week when we honoured the trinitarian nature of God. God is Love. Jesus is Love too. Tormentors can’t stand to be in the presence of that kind of love. That is good news for anybody who wants to be free, or delivered, or exorcised.
Unfortunately, Jesus is not here. He has gone back up to Heaven. But, he left us here, and he sent something of himself to help us. We call it The Holy Spirit. It’s the thing that makes us go out to the dead places of the world to bring the good news of new life and of love. Read the passage carefully and you’ll see that Jesus didn’t say a lot to the demons. It is as if the mere presence of love is so detrimental to the forces of evil that all it has to do is show up.
I am not saying to just put on your rose-coloured glasses and believe in love and everything will be alright. I know it’s not that easy. I am saying that the one who puts demons to flight in the Bible is the one who dwells with us in the community of those who follow him, and he is still healing, still, loving, still making whole. We often push him away because it feels like torture when your torturers are being tortured, right? But, if the man in this story hadn’t wanted to be healed, why did he approach Jesus in the first place? It’s because there’s some bit of him that believed, that hoped that he could be well again.
You don’t have to have much faith, apparently. You can yell out to God, “Leave me alone,” and that is all God needs to know that you want to be made well.
Are you yelling out to God, “Just leave me alone?” Or, maybe you have a faint hope that you could be delivered from your demon too. Your name doesn’t have to be “tormented.” You can get a new name. Ask God what your name should be.
Linda McMillan is writing from Chiang Mai, Thailand where her name has been Joyful.
Some Notes of Possible Interest
Since this story is recorded two times, and with two different place names, it is hard to know exactly where it happened. Our passage today, though, says that it was opposite Galilee which would have put it on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee.