The Scripture: 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.
This scripture is deep. I mean really deep. So many times when I’ve read this in the past, I’ve wanted to gloss over it, because it seems to come out of nowhere and then disappear. On the surface this entire trip seems arbitrary. It almost seems like a side trip interrupting the stride of Jesus’ ministry to the Jews. Why in the world did Jesus cross over the lake anyway? I mean, one day, Jesus is hanging around healing people and teaching in parables, and the next he seems to say, “Hey! Let’s just take the boat and visit the Greeks on the other side of the lake.”
When he left the Gerasene shore to return to his own neighborhood, there were crowds waiting for him. He taught, he healed, and he spoke to crowds of people. Sandwiched in between these many activities, Jesus made what seems to be a fairly short visit across the border. While he was there, Jesus healed a man who was possessed by demons. Jesus healed this poor man who was suffering for a very long time. This man had lived wearing no clothes, bound in chains at times and at other times escaping into the wilds. Now, he was living in the tombs near the place where the pig-herders watched over their herds. As I ponder this scripture, I’m struck by the use of the word “healing.” Taken literally, this story is about Jesus sending demons out of a man and into pigs because they didn’t want to be sent back into the Abyss.
There are many things we could talk about in the scripture. We could talk about why Jesus chose to go across the lake; we could talk about why the use of pigs is important in that religious and political climate; or we could talk about what the Abyss is and why the demons didn’t want to go there. However, the use of the word “healing” indicates that this man is suffering from an illness. That’s what I’d like to talk about today.
I would like to suggest that this scripture is a story of hope for those who suffer from the isolation of mental illness. Through this story, we can see that Jesus brings a message of hope to those who have lost it. The mentally ill, the despondent, the lost, and the exiled can find themselves accepted through God’s healing. When we recognize Jesus as having the power of God, we must see the world from a radically different vantage point. We can choose to fear the change that comes from knowing the true message of Christ, or we can recognize what has happened and follow him.
Taking this scripture into consideration with others in which Jesus told his disciples that they, too, could have the very power that he possessed, we can come to realize that we have all the power of God at our disposal, if we live as disciples. That is not to say that discipleship is about following rules or even calling ones’ self Christian. It is about faith and action.
I spent one bohemian summer living at Venice Beach in 1987. At that time, there was an amphitheatre on the beach, where sometimes concerts were held. Most of the time it was a gathering place for runaways and for the homeless. There was one alcove in the side of the amphitheatre that faced the boardwalk. Inside that alcove, there lived a woman who wore nothing but a fur coat, which she rarely buttoned. Beneath the coat, she was as naked as the day she was born. She owned very little, but her one prize possession was her broom. She used it to chase away intruders from her home.
I never knew her name. In fact, I’m not sure anyone knew her name. Even the homeless folk along the boardwalk who I befriended and often hung out with called her “the crazy naked lady.” When I think of the demoniac of this story, I think of this woman. As I picture her in my memory, I can relate her to this poor man, who has been driven naked into the wilderness by his Legion of demons.
For years after one of my sisters began to have seizures that caused hallucinations and strange behaviors as a result of a train accident, we tried to get help for her. The problem was, she didn’t understand that she needed help. She would disappear for days, even weeks on end. When we did know where she was, we were called at least once a week to pick her up somewhere because she was found passed out or catatonic, unaware of where or even who she was and yes, sometimes naked.
Unfortunately, because she hadn’t yet posed what they call a “danger to herself or others,” there was no place she could go but back home. Until the night she began running into traffic on a major road, thinking she had to get somewhere, we could do nothing but pray for her. The so-called Demoniac, who was driven into the wilderness by his “demons” reminds me of my sister, driven to places I can’t even imagine.
How might the “Demoniac’s” life have changed if there had been psychiatric care available to him? Like my sister, I am sure he had family who cared for him and who prayed for him to be released from his tortuous life. I’m fairly certain that Sally suffered from depression and possibly undiagnosed bi-polar disorder for a long time before her accident. She self medicated from the age of 12 until well after she was hit by a train. How might my sister’s life have been changed if we had been able to get her help earlier? What if they had access to someone who could have helped him when he was younger? How joyful they must have been when he came home in his right mind. How might “the crazy naked lady’s” life have changed if she had not been turned out of a mental health facility along with thousands of others in the mid-1980’s?
Healthcare provided by the state costs the taxpayers money. Instead of providing funds for adequate mental healthcare, someone decided to spend that money on something else. To bring this into a timely perspective, we are dealing with the controversy of “Obamacare” today. Many taxpayers would rather pay for the military than the care for the sick among us.
Might there be a correlation between those taxpayers and the onlookers and pigherders of Jesus time? Might the naked woman at the amphitheatre be the demoniac? In order to exorcise the naked woman of her demons, the taxpayers would have to lose whatever it is they valued more. The power of the Most High God – the Love that is represented by the love of Christ for his fellow human being – is much more powerful than that of the other gods of nationalism, guns, money, and vanity. The onlookers would much rather maintain a false sense of security and power than to allow the sick, the poor, and the broken to be healed.
What kind of onlooker are we? Would we intervene in the lives of those who need intervention? Would we do what was necessary to heal the demoniac and clothe the naked woman? Or would we just stand there, like so many others, thinking, ‘I got over my own problems in life. They can get over theirs.’
The power that Christ gave to his disciples is the power of our connection to one another – the power of love. This power is available to everyone – not just to those who identify themselves as “Christian.” This power overcomes the limitations of our narrow vision and our narrow gods. This power will lead us to pick up the phone to call for help when someone needs help. To report abuse, to find someone find shelter or food. This power opens our eyes to the ways that we can make changes for the greater good. This power will open our hearts to the plight of people like my sister, like the naked woman, the homeless, the runaways, the disenfranchised, and the abused creatures, human and otherwise. This power is the power of hope, and we are commissioned to perform the miracles of our hope in Christ to create a better world for all beings.