Recently, in our culture there has been a fascination with zombies. They are some kind of half-dead once- human creatures who are no longer living but roam the earth creating havoc. I have to confess that I find these shows terrifying. And in our scripture passage, this poor man reminds me of a zombie. What is worse than a once-human person who has turned into some kind of hopeless demon? And even worse, this creature in our gospel lesson is wandering around the town cemetery naked.
The citizens of his town have tried to lock him up with chains and shackles, but he has always been able to escape. Unable to restrain or control him, they have managed to push him to the place where they feel he belongs, on the very edge of society, a place considered unclean by the pious Jews. He lives at the cemetery, by the tombs.
I have to think that the the author of this gospel, Luke, himself a physician was intrigued by condition of this man and the healing that happened. Luke, even with the primitive understanding of his time, understood more than others about the nature of this sort of illness, aware of some of the physical and psychological problems that could have caused this man’s illness. From our modern perspective, we would describe this man as “mentally ill.” His town thought of him as possessed by demons. Demon possession is not generally used anymore as a medical diagnosis. However, people suffering with mental illness still can make their communities feel endangered and extremely uncomfortable.
Jesus and his disciples had just sailed across the Sea of Galilee to Gerasa. Gerasa was on the non-Jewish side of the Galilee where many Jews lived. When Jesus arrives, the “demon-possessed” man calls out to Jesus, recognizing him as “Jesus, Son of the Most High God.” Unlike a zombie, the pariah of the community recognized Jesus’ true identity. Jesus asks his name and he replies, “Legion” because he feels tormented by a host of evil spirits. Strangely enough, Legion asks Jesus to send the demons into a herd of pigs. You might ask why does he want the pigs to die?
Interestingly, eating pigs was considered unclean according to Jewish teaching. So why were the Jewish people even raising pigs? Most likely they were being raised to feed the Roman occupying troops who were the ones eating the pigs, so there may have been a hidden message in the story about Roman oppression.
Anyway, Legion asks Jesus to send the evil spirits/mental illness into herd of pigs. But Jesus heals him, and the pigs then rush down into a river and drown. The swineherds run to the village, bemoaning their loss of income.
Something very strange has happened.
Meanwhile, Legion has become calm and is having a pleasant conversation with Jesus, clothed and in his right mind, seeming totally normal. This makes the villagers very uncomfortable. They cannot understand what has happened. They react with fear. The villagers are freaked out and ask Jesus to leave. Jesus had a power that was beyond their comprehension. They are scared. Wanting a new start, Legion, the man who had been healed begs Jesus to take him with him, but Jesus sends him back home to share what God had done for him. And the story ends with him doing just that. It is a weird story, but I think it would I guess make an interesting zombie movie.
The backstory to the movie is in the author’s choice of the name “Legion” for the possessed man, it has political undertones. Scholar Evan Garner, says, “According to the historian, Josephus, in AD 66, this Roman army brutalized the people of Gerasa as part of the campaign against the Jewish rebels during the first Jewish-Roman War. A legendary Roman legion of 5,000 soldiers would have been overkill, but a smaller cohort may have been responsible for the Gerasene slaughter. Regardless, Luke’s readers must have recognized what the demon’s name represented, making an association between demonic possession and brutal military occupation. In the exorcism, Jesus reveals his power not only over the demons who belong in the sea, but over the empires of the world. (Christian Century, June 5, 2019, p. 21).
In our world there are still what the pre-scientific world would call “demons.”
We hear of them all the time. Addiction is a demon. Addicts tell of being possessed by the need for their substances. Drugs of all sorts are still legion in the battle for human souls. Alcoholics battle the demon of addiction.
The craving for power is a demon that affects not only individuals, but it affects companies, organizations, and nations. Disrespect for other people and for God’s creation leads to the destruction of the climate, injustice , and groups that thrive on hatred and fear, and even violence in public places and even in places or worship.
Illness is a demon. Even with all our modern medical advances, there are still accidents and illnesses that take away life and health. And like the situation in today’s message, mental illness is just as powerful and destructive as ever. It comes as a curse, and we treat its victims as outcasts. Cancer is another demon that the medical world we can sometimes cure, but not always.
Greed is a demon, enslaving us to our wants. Our culture often values things more than people.
This scripture passage reminds us that there are many demons. They enslave the individual, destroy the valuable, and often bring out the very worst in us. The only way we can hope to release them is to come face to face with the one who can drive the demons out and let us sit in the presence of God, clothed by our faith and in our right minds.
Like a bird freed from a trap, Jesus comes to us to free us from the demons of our time, which are legion. Christ is our liberator. By faith we open ourselves to the the peace of God and the gift of heaven.
How should we respond to this gift? Can we accept the healing and release our anxiety and fears? Can we live our lives with serenity? Can we go and tell what Jesus has done for us? Can we hold the hand of the Holy Spirit on our daily walk? Can we find the peace and joy of the Lord in our lives?
There is a story about Abraham Lincoln who went down to a place where slaves were being sold. He saw a young slave girl and took money from his own pocket and bought her. When the purchase was made, Lincoln said, “Young lady, you are free.”
She said, “Please, sir, what does that mean?”
Lincoln said, “It means you are free.”
“Does that mean I can say whatever I want to say?”
Lincoln said, “Yes, my dear, you can say whatever you want to say.”
“Does that mean I can be whatever I want to be?”
Lincoln said, “Yes, you can be whatever you want to be.”
She asked, “Does that mean I can go wherever I want to go?”
He said, “Yes, you can go wherever you want to go.”
The girl, with tears streaming down her face said, “Then I will go with you.” (Original source unknown)
Freed, we too find our life’s meaning and direction by going with God.
Jesus calls us to respond to what God has done for us by resting in his presence and trusting in his strength. By his power we can drive the evil from our lives and replace it with love. He calls us to share the good news with others, abiding in his kingdom, today and forever. Today let us ask Jesus to heal us and to heal the world. Invite him into your life to live in calm and peace. Take time to appreciate the incredible gift of God for the salvation healing of the world, our Lord and savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Please pray with me:
Living God, you call us to yourself so that we may live in wholeness with ourselves and our neighbors. Unchain your people and set free rejoice in your saving word through Jesus Christ, our Savior. Amen.