5 PENTECOST, PROPER VII - C - 16 LUKE 8.26-39
Today’s gospel story is one of my favorites, and one that occurs in both Mark and Matthew with varying detail. It is a story of fear and reaction. It is a story of rescue and salvation. It is the only story in the gospels where Jesus gives permission to demons to destroy personal property! It is the only occasion in the gospels where Jesus is asked to leave, and the only one where he tells the one who begs to follow him - “no.”
On a clear day one can stand on the Western shore of the Sea of Galilee and look Eastward across the sea to the Golan Heights. During the time of Jesus the land of the Gerasenes would have been to the South and East across the sea from where Jesus had heretofore exercised his ministry. In Galilee he healed the Centurion’s servant, raised the widow’s son, and prior to crossing the lake, in today’s story, had stilled the storm and calmed the sea that both frightened and threatened the lives of the disciples.
He now ventures across the waters into heretofore un-chartered territory. The land of the Gerasenes held a mixed population of Gentiles and Jews, mostly Gentiles. The greeting Jesus receives upon landing on the other side is not from the local leaders, but from the man of the tombs, so-called because he lived among the dead.
This poor fellow was demonically possessed, literally out of his mind. He went around naked, and thoroughly terrorized the local population by screaming and yelling at any and all who crossed his path. Everyone was afraid of him. No one dared come near him. Ball and chain could not contain him.
Jesus had barely stepped out of the boat when this unfortunate individual ran at him, fell at his feet, and shouted at the top of his lungs “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?”
It wasn’t the man shouting at Jesus but the demons who possessed him. They recognize Christ as the Son of God and know that he has the power over them to cast them back into hell from whence they came.
After having commanded them to come out of the man, Jesus asks their name. “Legion,” they respond, for they are many. Knowledge of a demon’s name, it is said, gives power to the one who attempts to exercise them.
As the town’s people are afraid of the man of the tombs, the demons are afraid of Jesus and what he is about to do to them. Demons are very averse to changing their abode and are terrified to be without an abiding place.
They beg Jesus not to send them back to hell but rather into a nearby herd of swine. Though their malice is great, they can do nothing against the will of God. They can only enter the swine with Jesus’ permission and surprisingly, he gives it.
What a scene that must have been? Mark records two thousand swine rushing over the cliff and drowning in the sea below. The swine herders are besides themselves and run away only to tell everyone they meet what had happened. Meantime the man of the tombs has been rescued, salvation has come to him through Christ’s divine intervention.
When the town’s people arrive to see for themselves if what the swine herders told them was true, they find the man of the tombs clothed and in his right mind sitting at the feet of Jesus. And they were afraid; afraid no longer of the one who had so long terrified them, but afraid of Jesus and what he might do next. So they ask him to leave; to go back where he came from.Jesus complies with their request and begins to step into the boat for his mission was not primarily to them in the first place. It was none to soon for the disciples, I am sure. With all of the drama that has gone on before, however, the real point of the story is sometimes missed.
The man Jesus has just rescued now begs Christ that he might go with him, but Jesus says “no.“ Instead, Jesus sends him back to where he came from with a purpose; to tell those who will listen what God has done for him.
Was the man of the tombs a Jew or a Gentile? We don’t know. But the story shows that the power of God is effective beyond the Palestinian orbit, beyond his own people, and that no one, however sinful or depraved, is beyond the pale of Christ’ grace.
God in Christ had rescued him from a life as good as dead and restored him to life anew. No doubt he must have been a bit afraid to return to his own country not knowing whether or not he would be accepted. He would now have to stand up and take responsibility for himself. Having experienced the good news in action, he must now tell it himself.
Each of us has, at one time or another, experienced the good news in action. It may have come at an early age, or at mid-life, or in recent days. It came as a turning point in our lives; for none of us would be here today if we had not been rescued by God in Christ from a life of sin and death and given life anew. Salvation has come to each of us by no merits of our own, but through the divine intervention of Jesus, the Son of the Most High God.
Like the man of the tombs, Jesus bids each of us to go and tell our story whenever and to whomever the opportunity arises. And to live the new life to which we have been called. To be a Christian is to assume a great responsibility, not only do we have our story to tell, but we have His.
May God who has given us this new life, give us the grace to live it to the fullest, and a steadfast faith to go and declare how much He has done for us through the merits of His Only Son, Jesus Christ Our Lord, who lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. AMEN+