[Texts: Isaiah 65:1-9; Psalm 22:19-28; Galatians 3:23-29; Luke 8:26-39]
O Lord, take my lips and speak through them;
Take our minds and think through them;
Take our hearts and set them on fire with love for Thee. Amen.
Look with me again at how this passage from St. Luke’s gospel begins, in verse 28.Right off the bat, we’re told that Jesus has crossed the Sea of Galilee.
Up until this point, our story of Jesus’s adult life has taken place in Nazareth, a large fishing village in Galilee. Jesus has been healing people, performing miracles, and casting out demons. He’s also told some parables and taught a lot of folks about God.
However, in the story just before this one, Jesus and his disciples leave Capernaum, get on a boat, and cross the Sea of Galilee. This turns out to be quite an adventure. During their voyage, Jesus takes a nap, a huge storm hits, everyone almost dies, Jesus wakes up, rebukes the wind and the waves, and the entire sea goes perfectly calm at his command, allowing them to complete the journey in complete safety. The disciples are amazed, wondering aloud, “What kind of man is this, that even the wind and the waves obey him?”
Crazy, right? Hang on, y’all; it gets even weirder…
So, Jesus and his disciples have just crossed the sea. They’ve come to the other side, as the verse says. Their exact location is unclear, because different accounts disagree about the name of the area where the story takes place. Matthew’s version tells us that they were in the country of the Gadarenes, while Mark and Luke place the story in the country of the Gerasenes. At any rate… they’ve ended up somewhere on the eastern coast of the Sea of Galilee in an area that starts with a G, and we’ll leave it at that.
As soon as they set foot on dry ground after the heck of a trip they’ve had, they immediately encounter their welcoming committee: a man who’s possessed by demons. A whole lot of demons.
Mark and Luke both go into a good bit of detail about what this demon-possessed man is like. Mark tells us he howls night and day, and Luke tells us that he has been running around naked for a long time. In both stories, he has been chained up, but he is so fierce that even the chains and shackles can’t always keep him under control.
And Matthew, at no extra charge, gives us two such demon-possessed men. (Two for the price of one—not a bad deal, coming from a former tax collector, right?) Although he doesn’t paint as vivid of a picture as Luke and Mark do, Matthew does tell us that these two men are so terrifying and so violent that no one can go near them, or even pass through the area they inhabit.
Are you getting this? Naked, crazy guy—possibly two of them—chained up outside of town, howling like a wild animal, and scaring the living you-know-what out of everyone.
Oh, and did I mention the part about the cemetery? All three accounts agree that the demoniac or demoniacs live in the tombs—a burial site outside of town which is not only full of dead bodies, but also a hiding place for criminals and fugitives.
Now, all of this makes you wonder: What is Jesus doing here? He isn’t in the center of town. He isn’t even at the edge of town. He’s way outside of town, near the cemetery. Jesus is a Jew. Under Jewish law, touching a corpse would actually make Jesus ritually unclean. And I’m sure demoniacs who live in cemeteries aren’t the kind of company a rabbi would usually keep, either. What is Jesus doing here?
And, as if we needed another reminder that they’re not in Galilee anymore, there’s a large herd of pigs grazing nearby. Later in the story, Mark and Luke will tell us that there were about two thousand of them.
The herd of swine may seem like a minute detail, but it isn’t, I promise. Think about it: what are pigs raised for?
They aren’t raised for milk. They don’t produce wool. They’re mammals, so they don’t lay eggs. They can’t really be trained to do anything useful… they don’t guard houses, or hunt, or pull plows. You can’t ride them. So, what are pigs raised for?
Pork. Right? Pigs are raised for pork.
And Jews don’t eat pork. It’s not kosher. It violates Jewish dietary laws.
In fact, not only does Jewish law forbid eating pigs, it also designates them as unfit for sacrifices. Even touching a pig’s flesh makes would make someone unclean.
So, the presence of the pigs tells us that these people who live on the other side of the sea are not Jewish.
Again, we ask ourselves: what is Jesus doing here? We’ve got the naked guy with the demons, the cemetery, and now a Gentile area with a giant herd of pigs? Have you heard anything so far that might be considered remotely appropriate for any good Jew—let alone a rabbi—to find himself in the presence of? I haven’t.
Jesus and his disciples have crossed over to the other side, in more ways than one.
In all three accounts, the demoniac or demoniacs approach Jesus. The demons acknowledge Jesus, correctly identifying him as the Son of God. “What have you to do with us?” they ask him. “Have you come to torment us before the time?” The demons not only know who Jesus is, but they also know their own job description. The understanding of demons at the time was that they were spirits capable of possessing someone and completely changing that person’s character and behavior. Demons were believed to have the authority to do this, but only until the coming of the Kingdom of God on earth, at which point, all bets were off for them. They see Jesus and are understandably a little freaked out, because they know the Kingdom hasn’t come yet, and they’re worried Jesus might be here to try and force them into early retirement. That’s what they mean by “before the time”.
In Luke and Mark’s versions, Jesus asks the man what his name is, but his demons answer for him. (The way I imagine it, they have the exact same voice as Darth Vader.) They identify themselves as “Legion,” a Roman military term.
In all three accounts, the demons plead with Jesus, requesting that, if he’s going to cast them out, could he please send them into the herd of pigs? Jesus agrees to this arrangement, and proceeds to cast them out. The demons possess the herd of pigs, and the entire herd of pigs runs off a cliff into the sea, where they drown.
The swineherds, who were presumably in charge of said pigs, totally freak out. They run back to town to tell everyone what just happened. The whole town decides they need to see this Jesus guy for themselves…or maybe they just want to make sure the swineherds aren’t pulling their leg.
Either way, everyone heads out to where Jesus is. They find him sitting outside of town, and in Mark and Luke’s accounts, he’s making friends with the demoniac.
Now, the townspeople know who the demoniac is. For lack of a better term, he’s their token crazy guy. He probably has been for a long time. That’s how they’ve always defined him—by his demons, and by their fear of him because of his demons. That fear is the reason he was chained up outside of town in complete isolation, out of sight and out of mind. This guy isn’t allowed to live among polite society. He lives, quite literally, on the margins.
That’s where Jesus found him: on the margins.
Okay, so, it makes sense why the demoniac lives there, on the margins. But what is Jesus doing there? Why is he in a Gentile area in the first place—let alone near a cemetery and a herd of pigs? What is Jesus doing, interacting with someone whose mind has been completely taken over by something evil? What is he doing in the company of just about everything a good Jew should never touch with a forty-foot pole? What is the Son of God doing hanging out in the presence of all things unholy, unclean, unsightly, and unpleasant?
To understand what Jesus is doing here, we have to ask ourselves an even bigger question: what is Jesus’ ministry about? And to answer that question, we need to backtrack all the way back to Luke chapter four, beginning with verse sixteen, where we find Jesus in the synagogue, preaching his first sermon:
“When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’
And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’”
So, what is Jesus’ mission statement? What has he been anointed to do? Whom does his ministry focus on? Just as God redeemed and delivered God’s people who were in exile as slaves in Egypt, God in Christ came to redeem and deliver God’s people who were in exile on the margins of society. Jesus came for the poor. The blind. The oppressed. The captives. The ones who are excluded, demeaned or mistreated, lost or hurting or broken. And you see this as you read through the Gospels. Jesus speaks to women as his equals. He heals the slave of a Roman soldier. He touches lepers. He eats with tax collectors and sinners. He casts out demons and cures disabled people and even raises the dead.
He irritates the heck out of the religious, economic, and political establishment, because his message is all about the people whom the establishment leaves out. See, the Good News—that’s what the word “Gospel” means: “good news”—isn’t good news to the people who are in power, because in the Kingdom of God, the first are made last and the last are made first. The Good News is good news to the marginalized—the poor, the sick, the oppressed, the captives, the demon-possessed—because Jesus’ ministry is all about the margins.
Getting back to our friend the demoniac… the townspeople have come out of the town to meet Jesus. And, as I said, they found him with the demoniac. Remember, this is their official crazy guy, the one whose entire identity has always been defined by his demonic possession. But when they find him, he seems to have all his marbles. This is the guy who used to hang out with dead people, and now he’s sitting at the feet of Jesus. This is the guy who had a whole army, a whole legion of demons living inside of him, and now there’s not a pair of horns or a pitchfork in sight. This is the guy who was so violent and messed up in the head that no one dared to go near him. Now, he’s sitting calmly, presumably carrying on a conversation, and guess what? He’s got clothes on! He’s acting like a reasonable human being! He’s in his right mind!
He’s healed! He’s free of his demons. Jesus has crossed over to the other side, gone to the margins, broken all the rules of how society says he should conduct himself, encountered an exiled and afflicted child of God, healed the man, and released him from his bondage.
So that’s it, right? Happily ever after?
Almost, but not quite yet. See, the townspeople weren’t too happy about what Jesus had done—partly because of the impending bacon shortage, perhaps, but mostly for the reason we’ve already discussed: the Good News is terrible news to the ones who try to exclude God’s children from community. So, they ask Jesus to leave. Jesus complies, and as he’s loading up the boat and getting ready to go back to Galilee, his new friend, the former demoniac—I so wish we knew his name so I could stop calling him that—approaches Jesus and wants to become a disciple and go back to Galilee with him.
Jesus says no.
Jesus says no, and here’s why: This man has been healed. Everyone knows him as the crazy naked howling guy chained up outside of town, and now he’s the totally normal guy wearing clothes and in his right mind. He is now able to be a part of his community again. And that’s what Jesus wants him to do: go back to his community. Go back to the people who have always defined him as one thing, and show them that he’s something completely different now. Jesus wants him to go back and tell his story—the story he is now able to tell because Jesus met him where he was and gave him the opportunity for a new life.
Now, we really don’t need to know more than that he was sitting at the feet of Jesus, wearing clothes, and in his right mind to consider this story a miracle.
But there’s more. Jesus went so far beyond just allowing him to act like a functioning human being again—once he was healed, Jesus then commissioned him to go and share his story.
That is what Jesus was doing on the margins that day. And it’s what Jesus is doing here in the world, on the margins, today and every day. That kind of work is what we are called to do if we want to be called his followers. Why? Because we’ve all been the demoniac in this story at some point.
We’ve all had our fair share of acting crazy. We’ve all battled a demon or two—whether that’s abuse, addiction, mental illness, grief, poverty, racism, homophobia, or whatever your demons may look like—and yet, somehow, we’re all here today. We all have our clothes on, we’re all sitting nicely in our pews like civilized people, and by the looks of it, most of us even managed to brush our hair this morning.
None of us are where we were when Jesus found us—thanks be to God. We have that story to tell, but only because someone loved us enough to cross over to the other side, reach out to the margins, and bring us back into the fold.
Go, therefore, and do likewise.