Jesus and Power
Jesus and his disciples 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. Luke 8:26-39
Today’s gospel is quite a story. Before the New Testament was written, the stories of Jesus were remembered, embellished, stylized, told and retold; when the followers of Jesus gathered for prayer and for the breaking of the bread; or when families gathered for dinner and evening time together, either around the table or the campfire; you could almost hear the youngsters demanding of their dads, “Abba, daddy, tell the story about Jesus and the flying pigs.” And we can imagine the smile on his face as Abba delighted both young and old by engaging them with this hoot of a tale.
And on many levels, the story is a hoot. It is somewhere between a political cartoon and a graphic novel. The whole scene is bizarre. You’ve got a naked crazy guy, chatty demons, charging pigs doing swan dives, tombs, chains, shackles, freaked-out locals, and a small riot. And all this happened in gentile territory where, as far Luke was concerned, Jesus had no business being in the first place.
Yes, the folks who first heard this story must have loved it, and loved it even more each time they heard it retold. In addition to the great action and dialogue, there was ancient regional rivalry embedded in the tale.
What could be more fun for the good Jews of Galilee to hear, than a story about how un-kosher, unlucky, and generally weird the gentiles on the other side of the lake really were; and about how all those unclean pigs came to a well-deserved and hilarious end?
Then there’s the political subtext. Everybody knew instantly, both that it was no accident that the demons called themselves “Legion” after the famous and feared Roman legions, and that unclean pigs were a staple of both the Roman army and the Roman economy. Caesar’s legions, and Caesar’s rations, were mere child’s play for Jesus – a quick flush and they’re gone. What fun. And any Romans who heard the story probably wouldn’t even get their being the butt of the joke.
But as delightful as all this is, this is much more than a mildly comic interlude in the Galilean ministry of Jesus. It is really good news, and it is good news about power – all sorts of power. The Gerasene demoniac appears on the scene just after the more familiar account of Jesus calming the storm on the lake. In fact, the storm happened on the very same trip that took Jesus and the disciples to Gerasene.
Both of these stories are part of Luke’s run-up to the big question Jesus asks his disciples in the next chapter: “Who do you say that I am?” In fact, all of these stories are hints about what the right answer is; so they all are not so much stories about what Jesus did, but about who Jesus is.
And who Jesus is, has to do with God’s response to power. Which of all the powers in the universe, regardless of what categories we use to talk about them, is the strongest? Which power will have the last word?
There are a lot of powers out there, powers that can, and do hurt, isolate, torment, and destroy in all sorts of ways. The historically conditioned categories we use to describe them do not really matter that much.
Whether we live in a world full of demons that can possess human beings, as the ancients understood, or schizophrenics as we moderns understand; of storm-gods or indifferent natural laws – regardless of the categories we use, we live in a dangerous world, a frightening world, a world that seems at both first and second glance to be pretty much against us. We live in a world that doesn’t seem to care about us or about our pain. We know this all too well.
On a larger scale we live in a world in which too many don’t seem to care about the pain that we can inflict upon others. We live in a world in which privilege based on whiteness and wealth can wreak havoc and create terror in the lives of the most vulnerable among us; a world in which inhumanity and outright cruelty can be executed in the name of law and order. We live in a nation that is choosing to journey to the darkest side by threatening raids to round up thousands of immigrant families in ten major cities across the country that they might be deported to the unsafe and non life-supporting places that they fled.
This is, in some ways, an unprecedented action, but one that can be seen to have an historical antecedent in our refusal in 1939 to allow the Jewish passengers on the German ship St. Louis to disembark, because of right wing nationalist resistance, and sent them back to Nazi occupied Europe and ultimately to the death camps.
The story of the Gerasene demoniac, like the story of the calming of the sea, like so many of the other stories about what Jesus did, and about who Jesus is, these are ways of saying that all of those powers out there, regardless of how we name them or organize them, regardless of how real they are, and regardless of how awful they are – none of them will have the last word. None of them will prevail, ultimately. In the end, when all is said and done the power that Jesus brings, the power of love, the power we see most clearly on the cross, that power will prevail. This final victory is ours as gift.
At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what is lined up against us. Look, the Gerasene demoniac had more to worry about than his demons. He was also a pariah, cut off from family, friends, community, relationships – from all those connections that together weave the fabric of our humanity. That isolation, that apart-ness, was also the victory of powers, perhaps powers we humans create, powers that can destroy as effectively, and as completely, as madness or storms.
Still, by the time Jesus got through with him, our demoniac was on the other side of those as well. He was not only in his right mind, but he was, as they say, dressed appropriately; and Jesus told him to go to his home, a home he didn’t have when our story began. He was given the fullness of his life back. Remember, there are all sorts of powers out there; and all sorts of victories.
This is part of what Paul is talking about when he insists that, in Christ, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female.” Paul is saying that these distinctions, and others, these powers of the social, economic, ecclesiastical, and political structures –as ancient, hallowed, destructive, and potent as they were, and as they are –these are powers that will fall, and that have fallen, before Jesus. Their voices are not the strongest voices, and they will not have the last word.
It is our vocation and our sacred duty to oppose them, and by God’s grace they should not, and ultimately they cannot, separate, isolate, define, or destroy us.
These past few weeks the people of Hong Kong took to the streets in millions to protest a change in law that would allow the extradition of accused individuals to Mainland China to stand trial. Would that there might be millions taking to the streets of our major cities to protest and stop the terrorist actions being taken by this administration’s descent into evil.
The love that Jesus is, the love of Abba, and it is stronger than anything, even the worst, the very worst, that the world can throw at us. That’s who Jesus is, that’s what these stories are all about, that’s the meta narrative or “big story,” regardless of the categories and the worldviews we use to talk about them.
And that is good news. Good news that remains our first responsibility to teach our children especially in a time in which the powers of evil are terrorizing our children.
The Rev. Frank J. Alagna
June 23, 2019