Every time I read our gospel lesson this week, I kept asking one question: “Are you out of your mind?” Is the naked, crazy man living in a tomb, out of his mind? And if he is what exactly does this mean? Is he demon possessed like we see in horror films or is he suffering from mental illness? Are the townspeople out of their minds for treating this man like a ferocious animal, allowing him to run naked in the wilderness, and binding him with chains and shackles? Is Jesus out of his mind for sending a herd of demon-possessed pigs to their deaths, decimating the local economy in order to save one man?
Is Luke out of his mind for telling us this story? It raises more questions than it answers! Are we out of our minds for believing that this, This is the gospel of our Lord, the good news of Jesus? This is not one of those stories that can be tied up with a pretty bow. It reminds us that sometimes the gospel is messy. It’s complicated and requires some effort on our part in order to understand it and apply it to our lives.
Our story begins with a geography problem. Luke says it took place in Gerasa. However, this can’t be true because Gerasa is 40 miles south of Lake Galilee. Matthew says it took place in Gadara. However, this is also incorrect since Gadara is inland and nowhere near a lake. Finally, Mark says it took place in Gergesa, which is a tiny town on Lake Galilee. Bingo! We have a winner!
Geographical evidence supports this as well. Gergesa is the only one of the three towns with a steep bank overlooking the sea. This is an important element in the story. Furthermore, early church historian Eusebius identified Gergesa as the site of the story. There is also a 6th century monastery there which was built to commemorate this miraculous healing.
So, our story actually takes place in Gergesa. The residents are called Gergesenes. The reason why this is important is that Gergesa is Gentile territory. Jesus is out of his mind because good Jewish rabbis are not supposed to be found walking through Gentile territory, let alone doing ministry there. But, we know Jesus, he’s crazy like that There is a long list of stories in the gospels of Gentiles whom Jesus helped and healed.
So, as our story begins, Jesus steps out of his boat into Gentile territory on the shores of Gergesa. Immediately he is confronted by a demon-possessed man whom Luke describes as naked and living in the tombs on the outskirts of town. This man was clearly out of his mind. The Gergesenes thought he was demon-possessed and treated him harshly. They “kept him under guard, and bound him with chains and shackles.” Occasionally he was strong enough to break these restraints and was “driven by the demons into the wilds.” In other words, he was out of his mind. He was crazy and uncontrollable like a wild animal.
This part of the story makes me very sad. It brings to mind the way we sometimes treat those who are out of their minds with mental illness. We lock them up in institutions. We sometimes overmedicate them or unnecessarily restrain them. Because of funding cuts in mental health services, we let some of them run wild on the streets of our city. We often turn our backs on them and wish they would just disappear.
This is a very painful subject for many people. But it’s a subject we need to talk about more. There IS a difference between demon possession and mental illness. While they may not have understood this in first century Israel, we should be able to understand it in 21st century America. This is also a very personal subject for me. I don’t think everyone in this congregation knows this, but my grandfather was bipolar. He was undiagnosed most of his life. No one ever talked about it when I was growing up. When I finally learned what was happening, it helped me to understand my grandfather so much better and my love for him grew bigger and bigger. So, when I hear about the plight of this poor, unfortunate man in our story, my heart goes out to him. I’m sure yours does, too!
As we read about his crazed existence, running naked in the wilds and out of his mind, we are also reminded how quick we are to demonize those we disagree with these days because race, religion, political party and the like. The hate speech which has surrounded the Orlando massacre this past week has shocked and dismayed me as both politicians and pastors have said in public that those who were killed deserved what they got. Some view the LGBT community as OUT OF THEIR MINDS
because of who they are even though science has proved time and time again that this is not the case. It’s this kind of demonization of an oppressed people that led to the Holocaust in Nazi Germany, and it leads to senseless acts of violence like the one we saw this past week.
My heart goes out to their friends and families. My heart goes out to our nation where we have reached the point where mass shootings are an all too common occurrence. We as a nation are OUT OF OUR MINDS because we continue to talk about this issue endlessly but do little to solve the problem.
Now let’s go back to the story. This man approached Jesus, naked and out of his mind. He said, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me.” WOW! I hear this man asking Jesus, “Do not add insult to injury.” This man is exhausted. He’s been ignored and abused. He’s looking for a small crumb of kindness; a sign that Jesus understands his plight and is sympathetic toward his suffering.
When it comes to those who are suffering from mental illness of any kind, I hope we will be sympathetic to their situation. I hope we will not add to their torment. When they reach out to us for help, I hope we will have compassionate hearts and sympathetic ears. I hope we will educate our minds so we don’t hold on to ancient superstitions regarding the complexities of mental illness.
And so, after this man asks Jesus not to torment him, Jesus commands the unclean spirit to come out of the man. Jesus asks this spirit, “What is your name?” The man says, “Legion” for many demons had entered him. Matthew has the best version of the man’s response: “My name is Legion; for we are many.”
How are we to understand this saying? After all, we’re not too big on demon possession in 2016 unless it occurs in a horror film! However, I’d like to make the observation that all the “demons” Jesus confronts in the gospels have three things in common:
1.) They cause self-destructive behavior in the victim.
2.) The victim feels trapped in that condition.
3.) They separate the victim from their family and community.
Sound familiar? Many of us suffer from the same kinds of challenges and burdens! Some of us struggle with mental health issues. Others struggle with recovery from abuse or addiction. Sometimes we’re also our own worst enemies. We make bad which possess our lives and take us in directions we never intended to go. We all have demons, when you think about it. We all have struggles and temptations that sometimes get the best of us. Our demons also have a habit of multiplying. One bad decision can set into motion a whole host of horrors until they become overwhelming. So if we’re honest, we know LEGION very well. We are acquainted with its many names.
As the story continues. the demons beg Jesus not to order them back into the abyss. In early Jewish cosmology, the “abyss” is the great watery deep under the earth. It’s a place of chaos as opposed to the created order of the earth. It’s the place where the powers of darkness are confined until the day of judgment. The demons beg Jesus not to send them back into this abyss of chaos and darkness.
What happens next is the weirdest and craziest story that has ever been told about Jesus. On a hillside close to the lake, there is a large herd of pigs who are happily feeding. The demons beg Jesus to let them enter the pigs. Jesus gives them permission. Suddenly, the pigs are out of their minds. They rush headlong down the steep bank and into the lake where they drown.
When we hear this part of the story we’re absolutely appalled. “Surely, Jesus must be out of his mind,” we exclaim. “Why would he kill a bunch of innocent pigs? Why would he destroy the local economy for no apparent reason? Call the ASPCA, Call the Humane Society! Let’s get Sarah McLaughlin to do a sad TV commercial to raise funds for poor, unfortunate creatures such as these!”
This past week, I read everything I could get my hands on in order to understand this part of the story. Most scholars and preachers ignore it altogether and focus on the healing Jesus offers. But you know me, I had to have an answer as to why Jesus would do such a thing. Is he just being a good Jewish boy who hates pulled pork BBQ OR is something else going on in the story?
What I learned from my research is that first century Jews would hear this detail in the story differently than we do. They would be gleeful over the demise of the pigs because it meant that Jesus had tricked the demons. The demons thought they were getting away with something. But through their own destructive efforts they ended up in the abyss anyways. Furthermore, Jewish listeners of this story didn’t have a problem with this part of the story because they considered pigs to be unclean animals. They were forbidden to eat them, according to Jewish Law. Therefore, the loss of the pigs is no big deal, even though it IS a big deal to the Gentile farmers!
What I think modern Christians need to do with this part of the story, is view it in a metaphorical sense. It’s telling us that the demons who inhabit our bodies, minds and spirits are self-destructive. They can lead us to places of chaos and danger. The bad choices we make not only affect us but they affect others as well. The pigs remind us that as we move from being out of our minds to wellness, there is always a cost attached to it.
This brings us back to the story. As the the townspeople gather at the edge of the lake, they notice two things:
1) The man is quietly sitting at the feet of Jesus. He is “clothed and in his right mind.”
2) They see the lake of dead pigs.
It’s hard to imagine all of the emotions they are feeling. Luke tells us the townspeople are “seized with great fear.” They ask Jesus to leave Gergesa. This means his healing of the demon-possessed man is hardly a rousing success. There aren’t many stories in the gospels where Jesus is asked to get out of town after he performed a miracle. Usually, at least one person says thank you. But not today. It is a day of mixed feelings; a day of surprises and unexpected twists. The Gergesenes are left to ponder what all of this means. They have to confront their shame regarding the way they treated this man. They have to sort out their feelings about Jesus who, on one hand, has power over demons, but, on the other hand, turned their village upside down. It’s hard to know who is out of their minds in this story, Perhaps, it’s a little bit of everyone depending on the moment and the situation.
So where is the good news in our gospel lesson? At the beginning of my sermon, I told you I couldn’t tie this story up with a pretty bow. Sometimes the good news of Jesus is messy and complicated. This is one of those situations. What I get from this story is that each of us has our own demons we struggle with. These demons cause a great deal of damage to our bodies, minds and spirits. They cause a great deal of damage to others as well.
The good news is that Jesus has the power to heal our lives, no matter what demons we are facing. It may not be a miraculous healing like the story we heard today. But I believe Jesus calls us day by day, moment by moment, to move from death to life, from bad choices to better ones, from woundedness to wholeness, from being out of our minds to being in our right minds.
Sometimes this journey gets a bit messy. Sometimes it’s painful and difficult. But our gospel lesson reminds us that Jesus is on our side no matter what. Others may abandon us along the way, but Jesus promises he will never leave us nor forsake us. So take heart, my friends. Life is tough. Our demons are tough. But Jesus is tougher. He has the power to move us toward healing, hope and new life. AMEN!
Copyright ©2016 by David Eck.