The great theologian Karl Barth thought that the herd of pigs careening off the cliff’s edge into the Sea of Galilee was hilarious – I believe his exact words were, “burlesque” and “farcical,” a herd of squealing pigs in a panic. But, as a descendant of Iowa pig farmers, I am scandalized, I tell you – simply scandalized!
My great grandfather loved his swine, even as he sold them to the food processors to make his living, and, in doing so, sent them to the very same fateful outcome. Still, I’d like to think that he had a respect for the animals that God created. And so, I don’t think my great grandfather would have found anything humorous in the least, about good pork, leaping to its own destruction – all these potential “Spanferkel’s” tragically wasted! Even if –in the case of this gospel story– it was for a good cause, that is, the drowning of the Legion of demons and sending them back into the abyss, still, I imagine my great grandfather thinking, not hilarious at all!
Some have tried to blame it on Jesus, but there is a strong “shadow of doubt” protecting him, I’d say, in that, Luke says it was the demons themselves who begged Jesus to let them enter the large herd of swine feeding on the hillside. Jesus merely gave them “permission” – and then they entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake…
Whether or not Jesus is acquitted of this loss of life or not, no doubt he saw it from a different perspective. The cloven-hooved swine were an un-clean animal, for the ancient chosen people, unfit for human consumption. So, how bad can it be that they end up in the big drink, martyrs for a good cause, in the eyes Jesus and all his followers?! Our convenient herd of swine were, in many ways, the perfect receptor for expelling the Legion -5,000 demons- that were tormenting the one man.
But once Jesus had exorcized the demons, the most unexpected thing happened! Once Jesus healed the man, and he was found in his right mind, wearing clothes again, and was –like a good student with their Rabbi– sitting at the feet of Jesus – then the people become, afraid, of Jesus, and want to expel him!
Jesus, on the other hand, was rather calm and courteous about it all. Ironically, he wasn’t afraid of the crazy man – chained, naked and living in the cave-like tombs. Jesus has some kind of negotiation or discussion with the demons in him, and doesn’t take offense when Legion shouted at the top of his voice at him.
So, what does Jesus know that we don’t? Why does Jesus bother with this guy, the most marginalized outcast of the whole city of Gerasa? And how does this possessed man, Mr. Legion, know who Jesus is, calling him the Son of the Most High God, when his own disciples on the way over in the boat seem so puzzled and question, who is this Jesus that calms the sea?
Jesus, as Luke state plainly, earlier in this gospel, came to heal the sick, and loose the bonds of the oppressed. Now, in freeing the Gerasene Demoniac, we see those words in action – a kind of test of where our faith is at. Because, healing and setting free are not just a state of mind, not just private or internal, but they mess with orders of power we actually live in. When we, like the townspeople of Gerasa, project our fears and failures onto a convenient scapegoat and chain them up in jails where the living are left for dead, yet still controllable – in a word, demonized – what happens if Jesus comes and liberates them - and us - and all our well laid plans and order of things, is messed with?
Jesus, when he comes, breaks through our demonic social orders, calmly demanding, and publically insisting, on freedom and life for all. He never forces us into it, but he empowers us to take responsibility for our sins and pathologies, and not just our own individually, but collectively in community, for all our faults together, challenging us to organize for action in God’s world. And this is just what is so scary for us, which we see in the fearful reaction of the people of Gerasa – the liberation and salvation from death that Jesus brings, asks us, to make life and forgiveness available to all.
In 2007, when Mother Teresa's book, Come Be My Light, came out, it really shocked people. Not only was she candid about her demons, but no one suspected she even had them in the first place. She wrote that she hadn't practiced what she preached, and lamented the stark contrast between her exterior demeanor and her interior desolation: "The smile is a big cloak which covers a multitude of pains,” she wrote… “my cheerfulness is a cloak by which I cover the emptiness and misery… I deceive people with this weapon."
She describes the absence of God's presence in many ways — as emptiness, loneliness, pain, spiritual dryness, or lack of consolation. "I find no words to express the depths of the darkness… My heart is so empty… I don't pray any longer." She rebukes herself as a "shameless hypocrite" for teaching her sisters one thing while experiencing something far different.
Not that it helps her a whole lot, but I think we can understand how, in a way, Mother Teresa took onto herself the demons of the world that most of us are unwilling or afraid to deal with ourselves. In caring for the least of the least, she did the work of healing Jesus did, in a place of great suffering, and in the process nearly became the chained and screaming demoniac herself. Yet, she was a light and a beacon for us, even while taking on the worst of the demons, of our world.
And so we have to ask, where are the demons today? Where are the demons in our lives? How come, for instance, our Prisons are such a growing industry, while our school budgets shrink and schools are being shuttered? How come we welcome immigrants to fill the most difficult jobs, which put food on our tables, and yet demonize them as law-breakers, and drain’s on our economy? How come banks, reaping record profits in a stagnant economy, are privileged as too big to fail, and must be bailed out by a shrinking middle-class? How come amongst our active duty soldiers putting their lives on the line in the longest war in American history, the rate of combat deaths this past year is now eclipsed by the number of those taking their own lives in suicide?
I’m just asking the questions here, it doesn’t mean I have any answers!
But, seriously, I think I can say this. Our increasingly polarized and paralyzed society is, in some sense, responsible for its own pathology, at least in so far as the fears that we have, because of change, the breakdown of culture as we thought we knew it, and the disruption of the normal order of things, only feeds the demons. They feast on fear for breakfast!
But Jesus comes to send the demons away into the abyss, to wash away our narcotic of blaming and bullying, scapegoating and avoiding, and to put us in our right minds again, and thereby, to make a way for healing to begin, and new life to grow – to give us new clothes to put on, and the look of a new era, a new reality.
Jesus comes with a calm surety to identify the death-dealing, death-making systems we have created to maintain our righteousness, or our security – and drown them once and for all, and wash our world clean, that we may rise and shine as a new community, a new economy of scale, where justice and peace flourish - the realm of God – where grace and love are unbounded.
This drowning and rising again is the beginning of our life in Christ, a baptismal journey, as traumatic as birth itself, but a little miracle of sanity, that scatters all fear. And now in our right minds, the forgiven ones who are Sent to forgive, we unfurl our banners and joyfully shout out, loudly and proudly – have your way with us, Son of the Most High God! Birth us into your new creation!