“As he (Jesus) stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him.”
Make no mistake about it, this is a deployment story that is filled with military overtones if one has just a little background in which to hear and see them.
We tend to get wrapped up in trying to figure out the matter of demon possession and how that might relate to mental illness today, but if you dig into the background of this story a bit I think you’ll recognize some things that feel all too familiar.
Let’s start with where the story unfolds.
Jesus has arrived across the Sea of Galilee in the country of the Gerasene’s, and it is not by accident that he arrives here. No, this is a purposeful move in Luke’s Gospel.
Chapter 8 begins with Jesus breaking down the barriers that are usual and natural.
He gathers women as followers to accompany him, by name. “Mary, called Magdalene, from whom he had cast seven demons. Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, Suzanna and many other who provided for him out of their resources.” So, “flipping the script” on who controls and owns thing in this culture, Jesus and his disciples are dependent upon women instead of women being dependent upon men!
Jesus then tells the parable of the Sower that indicates that the news about the Kingdom of God is going to fall “wherever it will” and the reception will be varied.
He tells the parable of the lamp and how one does not light a lamp (start something) just to put it under a basket or hide it away, but rather one puts it on a lampstand for all to see. His is a ministry that is going to be noticed, for good or for ill.
Finally, when Jesus own mother and family come to urge him to come home, Jesus gestures to the crowd around him and says, “My mother and brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it!”
You get a sense from all of these parables and comments in the start of the 8th chapter that Jesus is out to engage the world, and his next move is full on deployment to Gentile territory. He gets into a boat and says to his disciples, “Let’s go across the lake.”
This is no pleasure cruise.
In transit a storm ensues, and while Jesus naps in the boat, the disciples become frightened ready to turn back. When the disciples wake Jesus and ask whether or not he cares that they are about to drown, it is not a hasty retreat that Jesus calls for, but rather he stands and stills the storm so that they can sail on.
There is intention in Jesus’ every move here. He has got get to Gerasene territory for something.
And now here it is… “Sandals on the ground.”
As soon as Jesus sets foot on the shore of this Gentile territory he is met with one who is demon possessed, who shouts at him, “What have you to do with me? I beg you not to torment me!”
“Legion” meets Jesus in Gerasene.
We don’t the name of this man, but we know the name of what afflicts him and inhabits him. It is a man with 6000 demons (the number of soldiers in a Roman Legion) who does not live in a house and who cannot be chained or bound. He languishes naked and raving among the tombs.
Everyone, it seems, knows him, or knows of him.
We do not know much else about this man, but the name and the pigs and the description of how he lives all paint a picture of him and give you clues about him with a little digging into history.
Josephus, (the Jewish historian) records that during the Jewish Wars, the 10th Fretensia Legion was dispatched by General Vespasian to patrol and claim this area of Gerasa. That was the same Legion later stationed in Jerusalem during the time of the destruction of the Temple.
Josephus records that the soldiers of the 10th Fretensia killed 1000 young men in the area of Gerasa. They imprisoned many women and children. They burned the capital city of Gerasa and attacked the villages throughout the whole region of the Gerasenes.
The insignia of the 10th Fretensia Legion was the pig. It was the insignia emblazoned upon their banners and struck into the coins they used.
For the people of Gerasa, “pigs” and “legion” would have been a fitting connection.
We do not know the circumstance of this man among the tombs.
We might however, now speculate about the kind of symptoms he exhibits.
He is unable to keep a home.
He prefers living on the streets or amongst the tombs, in whatever encampment he can assemble rather than mix into the company of people.
We can look upon his wildness and recognize the same kind of wildness that we might see in the eyes of those who have suffered the trauma of war and conflict.
The wildness we see in the eyes of the Veteran who cannot seem to make his way in this world, who lives on the street, away from people, and who cannot be contained or settled.
The wildness we see in the eyes of the refugee, those who have suffered under constant conflict or been put to run from their homes.
The wildness in the eye of the refugee who seeks a better life but who is criticized, demonized as “illegal”, driven out, not wanted, or ignored simply because there is no future in the homeland, and no place for them to go to or back to.
The wildness of a veteran who has suffered from repeated deployments, who struggles to cycle back into “normal” life, and who finds themselves longing for the purpose, meaning, and direction that deployment gave them, orders to follow over the uncertainty of trying to navigate life on your own.
Maybe the man among the tombs was one who had escaped, who was not killed when the 10th Fretensia came through with its reign of terror.
Maybe he was one who witnessed the slaughter and is now living with “survivor’s guilt.” He lives among the tombs as if somehow by doing so he could re-connect with those taken from his life.
Or, maybe the man among the tombs was one of those soldiers in the 10th Fretensia, who is now haunted by his own actions, the violence he was forced to inflict, unsure as to how to manage life outside the regiment of service.
He lives among the tombs haunted by the sound of war, the screams for mercy, the cries for help, or the laughter of comrades lost.
Whatever his circumstances, it appears that Jesus is aware of him and of his plight from all the way across the lake.
Jesus is moved to find him, to step onto his turf, and to deal with the ghosts that drive and haunt him.
This is a part of the good news today, that Jesus is aware of the suffering of this man, and now moves to deploy himself in the service of healing.
“Legion” is sent into the pigs, (a fitting destination and connection,) who then rush headlong to their own destruction.
The man is recovered, reclaimed, clothed and in his right mind again.
So, part one of the “good news” is that Jesus is able to calm the storms and drive out the demons. There is hope, whatever your affliction! Jesus is not afraid to “go there,” wherever the “there” may happen to be.
Jesus isn’t afraid to leave his home territory to get to your shore, and step out onto it.
Jesus isn’t afraid of any storms that my blow up along the way as he makes his way to you.
Jesus isn’t afraid of the kind of greeting he might receive as he does so, and he isn’t afraid of what might appear at first to be insurmountable troubles, “Legion” troubles as they present themselves.
Jesus will listen, and command, and deal with whatever “Legion” throws his way, — the horrors, the guilt, and in the end he will silence it all and let to run to its own destruction, freeing you from its grasp.
There is hope that you can be restored, put again into your right mind, and clothed. That is the good news in this story.
And this is also where the Gospel lesson takes a bit of an unexpected turn.
We are used to Jesus healing. This is not the first demon he has exorcised, remember. Seven out of Mary called Magdalene. We have other stories of Jesus calling the demons forth, naming them and then throwing them out.
What we aren’t prepared for is the reaction to this healing.
In all the other stories in Luke’s gospel the reaction to Jesus’ healing has been one of awe, amazement, and praise for what has been done.
Here, the reaction is fear!
Here, we (or at least the man’s neighbors in the city) don’t know what to do with this man clothed and back in his right mind.
There is truth to this as well, because (truth be told,) we do grow used to our own “wild eyed” neighbors.
We like them uncontrolled or uncontainable. We know how to relate to that. It is easier to ignore or label them if they remain foreign and “other” to us.
So long as the grizzled man is begging on the street corner with his sign, or living under a bridge, I can drive right on by and remain unbothered by his plight.
“Nothing can be done anyway, really, if you choose to live like that.” We might say to console ourselves.
No chains can bind, no programs can address, no housing or counseling will avail, or so we think. We are thus absolved from further contact.
What can you do, after all?
But if that same man were to come well-dressed into a congressional hearing or into a city hearing room and make his case for benefits?
Now that makes those in power nervous!
It’s when those long called “crazy” begin to make sense that we get nervous and frightened.
It is when they can calmly and coolly call into question some of our long-held assumptions about them and about the way the world ought to be arranged that we begin to be afraid.
No, it is no wonder that fear is the response to Jesus’ healing this man. Now his neighbors will have to treat him differently, and he’s not going to shut up!
He’s going to keep right on talking about what God has done for him, and by extension what God is calling us to do for one another.
He’s going to keep on talking about what Jesus has done for him, how Jesus did not let him languish in his own misery, but rather deployed himself on foreign shores to confront the evil of Legion.
The man now in his right mind is going to talk about how he could have followed Jesus, but instead was told to continue to speak here, with those around him who are afraid of what he might have to say, and of what God might be calling them to do if they were to so follow where Jesus has led the way.
No, I get that they are afraid.
We are too.
Afraid that we can no longer simply let the outcasts of society thrash about on their own.
Afraid that we might have to confront decisions made, and chart new courses for the future.
“Sandals on the Ground” is the example that Jesus has given to us, and a vision that troubles that are “Legion” can be addressed and dealt with instead of simply lived with.
Dare we also tread where Jesus is willing to step?