The text: Luke’s story of Jesus and the Gerasene Demoniac Luke 8:26-39
Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me”— for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss.
Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.
When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.
I was re-listening to Bill Moyers’ conversations with the late Joseph Campbell (from the PBS series “The Power of Myth”). Campbell told a story of two policemen who were patrolling in Hawaii on a mountain top; a place where tourists come.
Sadly, it is a place where people have jumped to their deaths. The policemen spotted a lone man near the edge and went to see if they needed to intervene. Just as they approached, the man made his move to jump, and the nearest policeman instantly reached out and grasped him. Campbell says that the policeman was being pulled over along with the man, and would have fallen had not the second policeman grabbed him.
All of them were saved from falling, but an important question was raised. Why did that first policeman continue to hold the man who wanted to die, at the risk of his own life, indeed when his own life was in jeopardy? He did not know the man, was not related to him. Why, in that instant, did he so entirely abandon his self-preservation instinct, his duty to his family, all of his wishes and hopes for life?
When a journalist asked him why he didn’t let go, he said, “I couldn’t let go. If I had let that young man go I could not have lived another day of my life.”
Why not? What deep knowing produced that life-risking act?
This week NPR has been examining suicides among soldiers. I heard a heart-breaking account told by two parents who lost their son to suicide after he had returned from a tour in Afghanistan. In their grief they tried to find a reason.
They had heard him speak of a time in which a young Afghan boy, about twelve, the age of their son’s cousins, suddenly came around a corner with a Kalashnikov aimed at him. It was a story he had told his parents about escaping from danger.
After their son’s suicide, his parents learned from the other men in his platoon that he was the one who had to shoot and kill that boy. The post-traumatic stress that he was dealing with came from experiences such as that. How could he live after having taken life away from others?
A policeman was willing to risk his own life to save a total stranger. A soldier is so disturbed by having to kill a child who would have killed him had he not, that he takes his own life.
What is the deep knowing that produces these results? Is it not that we share a common humanity with every person on this planet? There is within us, a deep knowledge that we are one in a profound way that is far more significant than our surface separateness.
Where does this knowledge come from and what does it mean? In our tradition, we tell a story about God as the ultimate source of everything – trees, birds, oceans and humans. We are made by God who breathed into our lungs the breath of God’s Spirit, the breath of life. All of life and all being itself has One source: One Creator.
The Name of Being
How do we know this God? Moses was in the wilderness when he saw the continuously burning bush. It was there that the voice, God’s voice from the bush named God, saying “I am who I am.” Being itself is God’s name (if that is a name at all).
Elijah goes to the same mountain on which Moses received the ten commandments, or, as it says in the original, “the ten words” and meets the same God of the burning bush; the I Am, where Elijah is told “I AM” will “pass by” and make himself known.
Elijah is, at first, presented with raw power: mountain-splitting, rock-breaking wind, but “I AM was not in the wind.”
“and after the wind an earthquake, but I AM was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but I AM was not in the fire; and after the
fire a sound of sheer silence.”
It is in our silence that we meet I AM. When we turn off the steady flow of our own mental narrative, and become quiet, centered, still, we experience the wonder of being.
Exhaling, we let go of our constant, habitual judging; preferring; disdaining; we accept what is, as it is.
Inhaling we receive the oxygen freely given, that we did not earn, cannot buy, or hoard or restrict, but which we share with all breathing life.
Jesus and his disciples get into a boat to make a crossing of the sea. There is a storm – because crossing of borders and boundaries always causes storms of resistance. But Jesus overcomes the storm with a word and settles the sea into the quiet of sheer silence. No words.
They arrive on the shore of a world marked by strangeness, impurity, and taboo. It is a place of tombs, of pigs and of unclean spirits. It is Gentile space. History tells us that in this region Herod the Great’s son built a city over a graveyard. We are told that a Jewish revolt against Roman occupation there was met with predictable Roman force; the rebels were herded into the lake and killed.
In this space of complete otherness, Jesus confronts a man whose life has been ruined. He is utterly de-humanized. He wears no clothes; he lives among the dead, he inflicts self-harm and no one can fix him.
He senses that the boundary he has lived with so long has been crossed. He attempts to gain mastery over Jesus by the ancient means: naming him.
“he shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torture me.”
But Jesus who was not impeded by the storm in the crossing is not going to be named. He turns the tables in this power-encounter, saying,
“Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!” 9 Then Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” He replied, “My name is Legion; for we are many.”
In our context, he would have said,
“My name is Brigade, for we are many”
A Roman army legion, as an American brigade, is comprised of several thousand troops. Here is a man whose life has been ruined by Roman occupation, living a living-death, dehumanized and now in the process of self-harming.
But he is in the presence of a far greater power who has crossed over to him. Jesus, brimming with the presence of I AM, will not avoid him, shun him, stigmatize him, shame him, or judge him. He has just given the command that soldiers know well: “Come out” or as we would say today, “Dismissed!”
The unclean spirits, those occupation troops, the blame targets need a place to go. They are sent into the very emblems of impurity, into the pigs. The “gaggle of new recruits” – which is actually what the word “herd” was used for (pigs are not herd animals anyway) then “charge” as if to attack, but end up in same water, in the same place, where those Jewish rebels were killed. They perished the way Pharaoh’s army perished in the Red Sea; as all empires have or will do. There is no one left to blame.
There is another way; an alternative to the politics of separation subjugation and scapegoating. There is a way to be at peace, re-humanized, clothed, healed, saved, mindful. It is found where this new human now finds himself, where Martha’s sister Mary was, where all disciples find themselves: at the feet of Jesus.
At his feet, the unclean are clean. There is no sea of separation between them. As Paul would shortly say,
“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” |
There is hope and there is tragedy here. The hope is that there is salvation: there is the chance that the victims can return home, as Jesus told him to do, fully alive, fully human, connected in family networks, full of joyous testimony.
But the tragedy is that the old ways of conflict are the best-known ways to be. The reptilian brain we all have inside us that wants to fight everybody, to make distinctions and judgments, to maintain boundaries and to reject the concept of our common humanity is not impressed, even by healing.
The other swine herds spread the word; the majority would rather live with the devil they know than to have the devil leave them without scapegoats to blame. It says,
“Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them”
Why did they not know what that Hawaiian policeman knew about our common bonds of humanity? How could they not want to be healed from the miserable status-quo conditions they were living in?
Luke tells us they were afraid, after what Jesus had done. Afraid of what? Perhaps they were afraid of wonder? Fearful of coming face to face, in silence, with the great I AM, as naked children, without pretense or hiding, or shame?
What a pity.
“There need be no fear in love; perfect love casts out fear.” (1 John 4:18)
- We are invited to be the people who sit at Jesus’ feet and learn from him.
- We are invited to join him in living without boundaries of exclusion and judgment.
- We are invited to go, as Jesus went, into the silence of prayer; in to the wonder of being, into the presence of I Am.
- And from that centered space, we are invited to recognize the truth that will not let us let go of any other falling human, with whom, in fact, we are one.