I want us to revisit our school days for a few moments. Those of you who are retired teachers will not have to walk too far down memory lane. But those of us who are not will have a longer walk.
The scene is a school cafeteria. There at one table are the jocks and the cheerleaders—the cool guys and the popular girls. At another table are the band geeks and the drama nerds. At still another table are the artists and the goths, who are dressed in all black. But at the table in the far corner sits a lone student. There are no fellow students next to him. He has no companions. We call these students loners.
These cliques have rigid boundaries, as all of us have probably experienced. There’s an unspoken rule that determines which students belong where and which of them do not belong anywhere.
Political philosophers from Aristotle to John Locke have argued that we are social animals. More recent research has only confirmed this claim. We are social to the core.
For this reason, most of us don’t tend to do very well on our own. Numerous studies show that lack of belonging leads to negative outcomes. The loner is more likely to suffer from anxiety and depression, which, if severe enough, lead to suicide. There is a link between social isolation and physical health problems, of the serious sort that reduce life expectancy.
But lack of belonging results not only in harm to oneself. More violent crimes occur in states where fewer people join voluntary groups, including churches. An older analysis of 15 school shootings from 1995 to 2001 found that all but two of them involved exclusion, bullying, or romantic rejection. In other words, we are talking about the loner who did not belong. No doubt an analysis of the more recent school shootings would give us a similar profile.
The biblical counterpart to the loner in the high school cafeteria is the Gerasene demoniac, to whom our Gospel lesson introduces us this morning. He is alone, excluded from community. He’s a troubled and deranged man. We don’t know how he came to this place of desolation in his life; the Gospel does not tell us. What we do know is that he is homeless and naked, finding shelter amid the rocks, which served as tombs for the dead in those days.
It is not as if he’s had no human contact. From time to time, people from the city sought to subdue him, to bring him under control. They bound him with chains and shackles, the ancient equivalent to the straitjacket used to restrain the disturbed mental patient. But because of his demons, he broke free and fled from them into the wilds.
Because of his extreme isolation, he’s disconnected from reality. Because he has no group affiliation, he has no identity. Or rather he has multiple identities. He says his name is Legion, because many demons had entered into him. “Many” is really an understatement, because the word “Legion” refers to a unit in the Roman army numbering 5000. The man is fragmented; he has no center. He doesn’t really know who he is.
Identity can only mean something when there are other people who can witness it. We have a need to be seen and affirmed. We want those to whom we wish to belong to look at us in the eye and tell us we are accepted and loved.
Psychologists note that in the early stages of group belonging, people eagerly seek information. They want to know the beliefs and values of the group; they want to ascertain the roles of the members, so they can see where they fit in. Naturally, becoming part of the group entails seeing the world in the same way as the other members do. This gives them a sense of how the world works and their place in it. It gives people a sense of who they are.
Contrast these people to the one who doesn’t belong. He is likely to become paranoid and delusional. His way of seeing the world becomes distorted, and therefore he is susceptible to conspiracy theories. He’s fearful and anxious around others, no longer able to read social cues. He may even become hostile and a danger to others, as we have already noted.
This is our profile of the Gerasene demoniac. We don’t use the language of the ancient world, but the language of our own age. We don’t speak of demon possession, but of mental illness. This does not mean that we deny the presence of evil and even the demonic in our world today. Far from it. But let us not be distracted by these alternative interpretations. If we do, then we will miss seeing this tormented man in the faces of so many in our world today. And even worse, we will miss the main point, which concerns who Jesus is and what Jesus does.
Luke tells us that the man comes out of the wilds to meet Jesus. This word translated “wilds” in our Bibles means “desert” in the original. In the Bible, the desert is a symbol of chaos, as we have seen before. Luke uses the word to make it clear that when Jesus arrives at the country of the Gerasenes, he is entering into chaos.
But Jesus is not afraid of chaos. He is not shaken by what he finds there. He is Lord even over the chaos, which must submit to him. He establishes for it a limit beyond which he does not permit it to go. That he permits it all in our world is a mystery that we will never fully solve, at least on this side of eternity. We have only the assurance from the Scriptures that chaos itself will be undone, that destruction itself will be destroyed, when Christ is revealed in his glory at the end of the age.
The demons who torment the man cannot prevail against such a one, even though they try. In the ancient world, to obtain the true name of your opponent in a spiritual contest is to capture his essence and thereby to gain control over him.
In identifying Jesus as the Son of the Most High God, the demons play this card, but to no avail. For his part, Jesus succeeds in obtaining their name. It is “Legion”, as we have already noted. Jesus emerges as victor in this contest, as he must.
So because of Jesus, the demons are going to have to come out. At this point, the man begins to bargain with Jesus. “Don’t send us into the abyss.” That is, “Don’t send us far.” The demons want to stay on the hillside, where a large herd of pigs is feeding, and enter into them.
Is there an ambivalence in the man that we are meant to see here? We saw it earlier when he first saw Jesus, ran to meet him, but then in excited agitation shouted: “what have you to do with me, Jesus?”
He is drawn to Jesus and repulsed at the same time. The man wants desperately to be whole, and at the same time he does not want anyone to upset the way things are.
He wants to keep his demons close by. To be sure, they torment him, but they are familiar. That too is human nature. We’d rather have the lesser good and even the not so good that is familiar to us than the greater good and even the best that is unfamiliar to us. We want healing from God yet we are afraid of the change that may happen as a result.
But Jesus does not give up on the man. “What have you to do with me?” –That also may be a cry of surprise that Jesus is concerned about him at all. No one else wants anything to do with him. He has lost all and is considered lost by all. Why should Jesus be any different? But Jesus is not about to leave him. “Never will I leave you, nor forsake you.” It is the promise of a faithful God, found throughout the Bible, a promise embodied in Jesus.
His lordship over the power of chaos is demonstrated when the demons, having entered the pigs, rush headlong down the steep bank into the lake below. Remember that the sea in the Bible is also a symbol of chaos. The scene here foreshadows the ultimate fate that awaits the chaos in our world—chaos itself will be drowned in chaos, as we have already pointed out.
This commotion does not escape the notice of the swineherds. Alarmed, they go into the town to tell the people there and in the surrounding countryside.
The scene shifts to the man totally transformed. Naked and alone and insane before, he is now clothed, in the presence of Jesus, and in his right mind.
Noteworthy is the phrase: “sitting at the feet of Jesus,” In the New Testament it always indicates the posture of devoted and focused listening. It is the posture of the student towards his teacher. The cacophony of the 5000 voices no longer rings inside the deranged man’s head. There is only one voice now—the gentle voice of the wisdom of the ages.
He is now at peace. No wonder he begged that he might stay with Jesus.
This episode has a good ending. But it leaves several loose ends. What about the loss of property suffered by the owners of the pigs? Is that what accounts for their fear, for their urging Jesus to leave their region? Or was it that the healing of this man upset their entire scheme of things? Or was it that they do not want this healer to rule over them, as has been the customary response everywhere in the world, from then until now?
All we know is that Jesus was courteous enough to comply with their request, but not before instructing the man to go into the city to proclaim to as many people as he found how much God had done for him.
No longer does the former demoniac have to live in social isolation, in the shadows, amid the dead. In going into the city no doubt this new man will find those who will listen to him. Perhaps not many. But a few may believe his story. And in believing his story they begin to entertain hope for their own lives. If God can heal this man, who was so far gone, then maybe God can heal us! This once tormented man who now has been made whole gives hope to all who knew him.
What about you? Do you know a child or a young person who is struggling with loneliness? Who is being bullied? Can you reach out to him or her? Can you as a follower of Christ embody in yourself the hope of Christ to this young person?
Loneliness is epidemic in our world today. When the parachurch organization Intervarsity surveyed college students last year, 80 percent of them told them they are the loneliest they have ever been — an all-time high.
Loneliness is a power in our world today, but our Gospel lesson tells us nothing if not that Christ is a greater power. He wants to befriend the lost and the alone. He can heal and restore them. Christ can satisfy that deep need for relationship by giving himself, as well as by giving them brothers and sisters who make up his own body, the church. Here the lost and alone can and should find community.
In our Epistle Lesson, the Apostle Paul spoke of community. He told the Galatians that there is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, they are all united in Christ Jesus.
It is interesting that the most basic human divisions are represented here: Race, class and sex.
It goes without saying that in our time these divisions have only become more bitter, as we can see almost everywhere we look. There are many reasons we can cite to explain why this may be the case. But what is important for us to see in connection with our theme today is this: we don’t thrive in divided and fragmented societies that drive us apart and isolate us from one another. There are many lonely, anxious, isolated people out there, deprived of company. And they are vulnerable to the many demons that haunt our culture, the demons of addiction, self-abuse and suicide.
It is important to see, however, that Paul isn’t talking about mere human community. Rather, he talks about a community whose members have been baptized into Christ, who have clothed themselves with Christ. We will be far from healing our divided communities unless we find the basis of our unity in Christ. And then as Christ heals and restores each one of us, we will be able to form strong and healthy communities. That is God’s gracious intention for us, in spite of how fiercely the world in its madness resists it. Amen.