Look at this gospel passage. It's full of all kinds of images that are hard to understand, let alone believe: a man with demons, living naked in a cemetery, demons going into pigs and pigs jumping off a cliff into the Sea of Galilee, which is a little bigger than our Lake Chautauqua.
As we should all know by now, our Lord Jesus is always going into odd, forbidden places so that outsiders of the faith become his followers. In this lesson, Jesus, is breaking down boundaries that keep people from faith and healing.
Jesus' very presence in the area of the Gerasenes was just one of the boundaries broken. The residents were people that the Jewish people had little, if anything to do with. So, why would Jesus go there in the first place? Jesus went to Gentile places because God called him there. It also shows what the nature of God's kingdom would be like. It would be a kingdom of love including all races and sexes. No one would be excluded in the future ministry of God's church.
The next boundary Jesus broke was that of demons. In ancient times, maladies were attributed to demons. When we read scripture with a 21st century lens, that concept is hard for us to swallow. If we have pain or another physical malady, don't we get on the phone to make an appointment with our doctor? We may knowingly look at this and other passages of scripture with incredulity.
Demons--isn't that something we see in movies like "The Exorcist?" Of course there are lots of shows about vampires and evil as well.
The man told Jesus that his name is Legion, meaning he was possessed by many demons. A legion was a Roman military unit comprised of five thousand to six thousand men. The man experiences his life as a veritable mob of conflicting forces and has lost his personal identity represented by his own name. In Luke's gospel, the point of the name Legion is concerning the size of the demonic horde that has invaded the poor man.
As much as we treat the perceived demonic maladies of Jesus' time as strictly medical in our own time, evil, demons and the like are real. I don't mean that we should go looking for evil spirits as some Christians do, but we should take the words of St. Paul to heart, "For our struggle is not against enemies of [flesh and blood,] but against ... rulers, against ... authorities, against ... cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places" (Ephesians 6:12). If we doubt evil exists in this world, just look back at the tragedies of the last couple of weeks or longer.
Talk to almost anyone who has been a missionary and ask them if demons are real. You'll get quite an earful. When I was part of a missionary group in Palestine, there were times we stopped everything we were doing and started praying because of a sense that something awful was about to happen. We would look out our living room window and see a very familiar scene--tires and dumpsters being gathered into a heap, with residents of the El Aza refugee camp burning these items in protest, followed by the arrival of Israeli soldiers shooting canisters of tear gas or bullets. Inevitably, someone would be hurt or killed. At other times, as we prayed, we could see the protest fizzle, no soldiers arriving and no one hurt.
According to Jewish law, going into places of death, such as cemeteries, makes them ritually unclean. The man with many demons no longer lived in a home with his family. He lived among the tombs in a cemetery. As tormented as he may have been, this place of death had become home. Living with the dead was familiar to him. It's ironic that the man chose a place of death as his home. Not only was he surrounded by death, he was living death with the many demons inside of him. Jesus broke the boundary of death.
Jesus was not put off by the man's residence in a cemetery. Nothing could stop Jesus from delivering him from the demons and restoring him to life. Jesus, the Lord of life, entered the forbidden place of death and conquered that which had imprisoned the man for so long.
When Jesus has broken all boundaries, he heals and delivers the man from his multitude of demons. The one who initially begged to be left alone, was now well. We see the boundary breaking/healing Jesus at work. Jesus sends the man home with the instructions to "declare how much God has done for you."
The man took Jesus seriously and could not keep quiet. So how did the people react once they heard the story told by the man Jesus healed? They were outraged and afraid. They were outraged because he let the demons possess the pigs and jump over the cliff.
How would you feel if someone took your herd of pigs? Healing is all well and good, but why did Jesus have to use the farmer's pigs? I suspect most farmers would have a fit if someone trespassed on to their property and took something of theirs.
The people were afraid! They were afraid because someone who had been possessed and who had been considered out of his mind, was now healed and acting as normal as anyone else in the village. This was beyond their level of understanding. The people from the surrounding areas asked Jesus to leave. This healed man, in his right mind, was disconcerting. It shook up the status quo. Even when people live in painful circumstances or have physical issues, experience discrimination or abuse, "The devil you know is better than the devil you don't know." These people wanted the status quo and feared change.
We often do not want to leave the familiar to journey to the unfamiliar. I once worked with a man named Jerry. We worked together at a part time job. We could always count on Jerry to bring humor into our conversations. One of his pet sayings was, "Change is bad!" Don't we sometimes feel that way? Change is often good, but at times, it's also difficult.
What boundaries enslave us? Is it discrimination, pain, apathy or a host of other things? We may not be able to break free, so our Lord of life wants to free us, not for our sake alone, but so that we can worship and serve God uninhibitedly. That is one challenge for us today. God wants to free us. Are we willing to let go of those places of death in our lives that interfere with our ability to live as God desires us to live?
The theme of this year's Synod Assembly was In Christ One New Humanity. For the first time, the assembly gathered around the challenging topic of racial justice and race relations in our congregations and communities. The assembly sought to take the first step in a conversation about race relations. While it was only the first step, it was an important beginning.
When we are free to serve God, what boundaries can we break down? This passage of Luke teaches us that the most important lesson is to go beyond the barriers that have been erected between races and classes. Let us not be discriminatory about who we think needs the gospel and who doesn't, who is too far gone, or who is ready. In Christ, everywhere we go we bring the light and power of the gospel, which not only breaks down barriers, but completely eliminates them. What would happen to our church if we went out into Bemus Point/Mayville and proclaimed how much Jesus had done for us?
M. Eugene Boring and Fred B. Craddock, The People's New Testament Commentary
The New English Translation, notes.