Back in 2004 when we were planning a Lenten Series with a focus on restoring community, my first impulse was to preach on today’s Gospel about the healing of the Garasene man, but then I decided to use the woman taken in adultery instead.
The reason I changed my mind in Lent is that adultery is something we still understand in the 21st Century. Possession by demons is not. While some clergy I have met or whose books I’ve read firmly believe in possession and the need for exorcism, such things are outside the experience of most of us. In addition, our education in Western science and empirical thinking makes it hard for us to even think in such terms.
In order to make sense of today’s Gospel about the man possessed by demons, we almost have to recast his situation into terms we can accept. What we call addiction strikes me as the closest analogy we can use. While not everyone with addictions winds up as outcast and pathetic as the Gerasene, we all know that some do. We’ve all heard stories of men and women living rough on the streets who used to have families, steady jobs, respect, and a place in the community. All of these were gradually lost as their addiction to alcohol or drugs took hold of them.
One can imagine a similar scenario for the Gerasene. It’s not hard to picture him as a working man with a wife and children. He begins to act peculiar, say odd things, that only his wife notices, but gradually other notice too. Then his work starts to suffer because he can’t stay focused. He may have been a street person too, for a while, before he scared his neighbors so badly he was driven out into the countryside.
One difference between the 1st Century and the 21st Century versions of the story is what happens to the man’s family. In our day, divorce might come early and the wife has some options that weren’t available then. The demoniac’s family was thrust into poverty or worse. They became objects of pity and then scorn. Meanwhile Dad is living in the tombs, running amok in his nakedness, and howling at the moon.
Into this situation comes Jesus, arriving by boat from across the lake – in fact, coming from another country. The people here are Gentiles.
He steps out of the boat, encounters the naked man, and heals him – sets him free of the demons that had possessed him, destroying a whole herd of pigs in the process. Is it any wonder that this healing ended Jesus’s activities in this neighborhood? I think it makes this healing story more realistic than some of the others, that Jesus was driven away.
Usually commentators focus on the herd of pigs that were destroyed. Certainly the owners would be upset and clearly that means they care more about their animals than about the welfare of the naked man. But there’s much more going on here that we should consider.
The community has made its accommodation with the demoniac. He lives in the tombs and leaves them alone. They leave food for him so he won’t come into the village at night to steal it. They hardly ever have to see him, so his nakedness is no big deal to them. If the boys of the village sometimes entertain themselves with taunting him, throwing rocks and running away, — well, boys will be boys.
His wife and children have accepted their lot and pretend he is dead. They eke out a living and close their ears to any comments about the wild man who lives along the lake. His daughter has assumed an “I don’t care” attitude about her non-existent marriage prospects and may have already taken up life as a prostitute. It’s the one way she can provide for herself and not ever have to trust anyone again.
Then along comes Jesus, a Jew from across the lake. He heals the man and turns their world upside down. People don’t like this. People like you and me don’t like this. He may have been an alcoholic, but he was our alcoholic, and we knew how to deal with him. Now we have to change not only our behavior, but also our attitudes, to accommodate this healed person.
Yesterday we could dismiss him or shun him. Now he acts like everyone else. Changing our relationship with him affects other relationships too. And it’s a terrible dilemma to know how to act towards him. It was comforting to have someone to look down on. Will he take a job away from someone now? Will the women have to include his wife in their conversations at the well and treat her the same as other respectable married women?
Thirty years ago I had a dear friend who had just struggled to sobriety. I was shocked to discover that within the first few weeks after treatment, her husband told her he really preferred her drunk. She was devastated and I was outraged. I’ve now heard similar stories more times than I can remember.
It’s easy to be outraged, but how do we respond when the spirit offers us opportunities for change? More often than not, I’m just like my friend’s husband or the villagers who drove Jesus away. Change makes me uncomfortable – even change for the better – so I resist it, struggle to turn it back – preferring the demons I know to the unknown over which I feel I have no control.
And accepting change gets even harder as we get older. So how many opportunities for growth and change have we turned down lately – or avoided, or sabotaged? Look around you in the week ahead. It’s always easier to see this fault in others – but then look at yourselves too. Think of it in terms of missed opportunities for healing and health.
Churches need to ask the same questions. We want to grow but don’t really want to change. We want to attract young people, but expect them to like our forms of worship. Be gentle with yourselves, but keep asking the questions. Does our behavior welcome Jesus and the spirit into our lives, or does it drive him out? If we welcome him, we will have to change.
The demoniac was healed by Jesus, but his children will always carry the scars of what happened in the meantime. Jesus sends him home to tell others of his healing, but also to heal his family by his return.
I watched my son grow to manhood while his father raised another family. I was incapable of healing the wounds this caused, but I gained tremendous respect for all you fathers who hang in there with your children, no matter what else happens, and I have the same respect for my son, who is doing the same.
So every time you pray for healing, for yourself or others, remember that you are praying for change and include a prayer for the folks who may not want change at all. AMEN