The cover of this week’s bulletin makes me think of bar-b-q. In other parts of the country, bar-b-que might include a lot of different kinds of things cooked on a grill but in the south, bar-b-que primarily means PIG. Pulled, chopped, or sliced, vinegar or mustard based sauce or even sweet sauce, it is all delicious! The cover of today’s bulletin makes me think of that yummy meal not just because there is a pig on the front but because it is a Happy Pig! Just look at him! And on most bar-b-que restaurant signs or menus there is usually one or more happy, smiling even dancing swine. This guy is all decked out, too, like he is heading to a party! Of course, flying over his head are a couple of bats, which let us know that maybe this pig shouldn’t be quite so joyful.
The image is related to this week’s gospel lesson which is a fascinating and detailed story about Jesus removing the demons from a suffering man. This is a remarkable text in that it is perhaps the only time in all of scripture that we get a taste of Deviled Ham.
In all seriousness, this is an intriguing text with several interesting parts to it. Once, while studying this text for a Sunday school lesson, a friend of mine said: Sometimes, I own a herd of pigs. They are my herd. I am tending them as I know best. Then God uses them in a way that does not go along with my intentions or understanding. It just feels like I have had to sacrifice what is mine and what I understand to be right for me. But in the end they are not my pigs; they are God’s.
My friend doesn’t really own a heard of pigs, she was speaking symbolically. But this perspective can make us think: Who are we in the story? Who are you?
First there are the disciples who are silent observers of all that happens at this event. Their silence might be because they are a little bit shell shocked. According to the section immediately prior to this, they have come through a big storm, and just as they thought they were going to die at sea, their rabbi stood up in the middle of the boat and commanded the waves, wind, and storm to be still. And it was all still. They could very likely have still been overwhelmed by this experience.
Also in this scene are some pig herders. They are minding their own business, tending their pigs. They are Gentiles, of course, because the Hebrews do not deal with swine of any kind. It is against their food purity laws.
Then there are the people of the community, watching all of this take place. Some of them had tried to help the man, at least help him not hurt himself or anyone else by chaining him. It certainly looks awful but it was probably the best they could do. They are most likely gentiles, too, because this is gentile territory that Jesus and his disciples are traveling through.
There is the most prominent character: the man with the demon. He is broken, and bruised as we can imagine. What a rollercoaster life he has lived; sometimes chained up in the city, in bondage and not free but in his community, and other times wild and naked in the cemetery, where he is free from his chains but where he is in isolation. Outcast and alone but not, as it happens, alone at all. He is most likely a gentile as well.
The reason it matters that most of these people are gentiles and not Jews is because Jesus is not in Jewish territory. He has intentionally gone out of the Jewish lands and into the surrounding areas which might have the occasional Jew living there but are mostly populated with non-Jews. He has shown up in a land and to a people who do not worship the God of the Jews and do not follow Jewish law. They are not a people who grew up knowing about the prophecies of the Messiah who is to come to put the world aright. They do not know about any of God’s promises or covenants the way that the Hebrews do and the fact that Jesus is the Messiah and the Son of God would have nearly no significance for them.
Then we also have the most sinister character…. or characters: the demons Legion, who are about their business of tearing things up, damaging people’s lives, breaking and destroying everything possible. An agent of chaos at work.
And lastly, we have Jesus, Son of the Most High God. He’s called by that title by these demons in this gentile land. The disciples can barely discern who this man, their friend and teacher, really is and will continue to have a difficult time grasping the truth that he is the Messiah, Son of God, but even the evil spirits in a land that does not know the God of the Jews knows the power of Jesus.
Now, when we do this little exercise of thinking about who we are in a scriptural story the one thing we have to be careful of is casting ourselves as Jesus. Even on our best days, even when we are being like Jesus to one another and even when we are most truly enacting the living, breathing body of Christ, we aren’t the Savior of the world. This little exercise of thinking about who you could be in the story is something you can do with most any piece of scripture but it is good to remember that, for the overwhelming majority of the time, we are not playing Jesus’ role.
So that’s our cast of characters. Now for the scene.
Jesus steps out of his boat along with the disciples onto this gentile shore and right away there is someone flinging themselves on the ground before him. Last week we heard the story of the woman of bad reputation crying all over Jesus’ feet and anointing them with oil. Today’s story is another outcast and unwanted person at his feet. This time it is a man of the city who is possessed by demons and is naked. Well, how much stranger can you get? He doesn’t even live in a house because, although the people of the community often keep him guarded and chained to try to prevent all the damage he can do when he is taken over by the demon, when he is possessed by this demon, nothing can hold him. In the past he had often broken those chains and run off into the wild lands and it seems that most of the time he lives among the dead in the cemetery. Alone.
And yet not alone at all.
He flings himself down on the ground before Jesus and shouts at the top of his voice “what have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?” Jesus is beginning to command the evil spirits in him to come out. “I beg you not to torment me” he pleads.
“What is your name?” Jesus asks him. “Legion” he replies. Legion—for there are so many demons in this poor man. They beg Jesus not to send them to the abyss. Nearby there is a large heard of swine; a huge heard feeding on the hillside. Legion asks that they be allowed to enter these pigs and so Jesus does just that. He gives them permission. The demons leave the man, go into the pigs and then, in a strange and unexpected twist, the pigs run head long down the slope into the lake and are drowned. Of course, that was Legion, doing what demons do, wreaking havoc, bringing about destruction and chaos.
Can you imagine the look on the faces of those swinehearders? They run off, telling the story far and wide. Now, we don’t know exactly what story they told. It could have been about how great that this guy cured the town crazy by exorcising his terrifying demons. Or it could have been that this mad man came over here and cast demons into our pigs and they all ran into the water and drowned, and not caring one bit about destroying someone else’s property and he might as well have thrown us over the side, too, because we’re now in complete economic ruin! But whatever the story they told, it drew people out to see what was going on.
And what did they see? This man who had once been bound in chains, the victim of evil forces that made him nearly like an animal, is now sitting at the feet of Jesus. Calm, self-possessed and wearing clothing. The wild man who had previously been flung down upon the ground before him, the one who had to be kept away from others so he would not hurt them, is now sitting as a student would sit at Jesus’ feet. Set free from the controlling grip of Legion. Or as the scripture literally says, he is healed.
In spite of this, the people are gripped, or perhaps even possessed, by fear and ask Jesus to leave. They want no part of whatever this is and they want no part of this man Jesus. As he is leaving, the self-possessed man whom he had healed begged to go with him but, instead, Jesus sends him home and into the city to tell everyone what Jesus has done for him.
So which of the people in this story do you think we are? Who you are? Honestly, I think that our lives might look like any one of these people at some point or another. In some ways, this story is about not getting exactly what we want, but what we need.
Sometimes we are like the man possessed by the demons. We are in bondage to something or someone and cannot free ourselves. Our modern minds often get stuck on the whole ‘demon’ thing and want to explain away possessions as they are described in scripture with contemporary things like epilepsy or mental disorders. Who knows, maybe those are correct interpretations and maybe there’s something more, too. I can think of many things humans experience today, from depression to addiction to all kinds of emotional and mental health issues that look and feel like the work of evil possessing a human. But the ultimate point is that this man possessed by demons needed Jesus to be freed from this bondage; to be freed from whatever or whoever or the whole Legion of things that was wreaking havoc and reveling in chaos and destruction in his life and in his body. But, like this man, we also don’t always get to do what we want with the life Jesus has given us. This man wanted to get in the boat and follow Jesus. This sounds like a fantastic idea, something that Jesus would want him to do, and who could blame him anyway! If all the townspeople were asking the man who cast out the demons to leave, what more might they do to the one who had once been possessed by them? Maybe he was afraid Legion would come back. Whatever his reasons for wanting to leave, Jesus tells him: no, I have another purpose for you. Go and tell your story and tell about me.
Sometimes we are like the townspeople. When something amazing happens, we may not automatically see it as a good thing. When God is active in our lives, sometimes that action is downright scary. We often prefer things to remain the same even if they are uncomfortable, strange or even painful. Sometimes we’d rather have difficult or strained relationships than have anything rock the boat. Just like the healing of the man in the text, which would have been good not just for him but also for the entire town, we sometimes have a hard time seeing through what looks like the chaos of change to see that God has removed some piece of real chaos from our lives.
Sometimes we’re like the disciples. While we don’t know what they necessarily want or think or do in this story, we do know, based on all that happens around this scene in scripture, that they want answers. They want to know who Jesus is. They want a clear statement, a clear understanding, a direct answer. But instead, they get parables, stories and examples of Jesus power, compassion, mercy and wisdom. Frustrating as that may be for them and for us, it might be because the straight answer and explanation to those requests isn’t always as clear as living breathing example of who Jesus is and what he came to do. That is what this exorcism is: a living, breathing example of the Son of the Most High God in action. Who Jesus IS, in a manner of speaking, is the one who is freeing human beings from the power of evil, restoring and healing them. Jesus IS the one putting them and putting us back to a state of self-possession and sound mind and then sending us out to share that with everyone else who is trapped by the power of fear.
And, sometimes we are like the swinehearders. We have a heard of pigs. They are our herd. We tend them as best we can. We have our families our jobs our savings our property. Then God uses them in a way that does not go along with our intentions or understanding. Sometimes it just feels like we have had to sacrifice what is ours, and what we understand to be right for us. But in the end they are not our pigs, our family our job or savings or property or our lives; they and we are God’s. Perhaps we don’t always get what we want but we do get what we need.