Picture this: Jesus has recently calmed the Sea of Galilee, much to the astonishment of his disciples. Shortly thereafter, they enter what is most likely Gentile territory. They had no sooner put foot on land than what most people would describe as a crazed maniac rushes at them—naked and shouting at the top of his lungs. Now imagine what your reaction would be. I imagine this to be one of those situations where one might do everything they can to avoid eye contact, perhaps side-stepping the spectacle, with your heart racing, seeking to increase distance between yourself and this human who seems to be out of control, hoping they’ll leave you alone and unharmed. I mean—we’ve all done it, right? Crossing to the other side of the street if you see someone who might feel a little risky or uncomfortable to be near? Not Jesus. No, he steps up and into the chaos, sees the root cause of the issue. This man’s behavior was not guided by his choice alone. He was oppressed by something much greater/stronger than himself.
And one more thing is clear: this man had been put out of his community—ostracized. Luke tells us that he was kept under guard, bound with chains and shackles. Mark tells us that there were attempts to restrain him, but he could not be restrained—no one had the strength to subdue him. Night and day he would roam around the tombs and mountains, howling and bruising himself with stones. His own people had banished him, not knowing how to deal with his behavior. He was too much for them.
Every one of us has experienced exclusion on some level. It hurts. It causes you to wonder what’s wrong with you—what you’ve done. It causes you to doubt yourself. Psychologically, ostracism—exclusion—has many negative consequences. Research indicates that it can cause lower levels of self-esteem, lower sense of belonging; it decreases one’s sense of being in control, and can create a diminished sense of significance and value. Imagine what effect that can have on the mind of someone who already suffers from troubling instability—that pain and shame on top of the frustration of having little control over oneself. But imagine if you had been cast so far out that you literally had no one and no place to call home—cast out to live among the dead. How agonizing!
The man runs up to Jesus, falls down, and shouts out, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? In this moment, even what appears to be a raving lunatic picks up on the obvious and can understand the truth of who Jesus is—that he represents THE God that is above all else, highest among the hierarchy of all gods.
He begs for mercy, not torment. Surely he’s been tormented enough. Then with the greatest amount of simplicity, Jesus cuts into the chaos and asks the most basic of questions: “What is your name?” He does not dismiss this man, as so many others have done before. He doesn’t compartmentalize him as “the other.” He doesn’t fear him. He sees him as a child of God.
Everyone, even the untouchable, needs God’s love—needs the gospel and the healing it can provide.
Once the townspeople arrive they find the man—perhaps for the first time since he was a boy—clothed, in his right mind. And I find this fascinating. Their reaction wasn’t one of joy over reunification with one of their own, but of fear. They were afraid. Once again they hear the great testimony of what has happened and again it says they were “seized with great fear”—as if they were under their own oppression.
We all have our demons. This fear cannot hear, cannot see, and cannot celebrate the good news. And so they react in their fear, by asking Jesus to leave—casting him away from the community just as they had their demon afflicted son. It seems the people’s fear can’t tell the difference between good and evil.
Fear is a powerful force—it can spiral out of control.
Fear can be contagious. Fear can cause division in community—fear of the unclean, the other, people who aren’t like “us.” Fear can create chaos and confusion. Fear breeds fear. Fear makes us look away and put more and more things into the category labeled “Not My Problem.” It gets infinitely more complicated when our political systems and the media try to tell us what to think and feel, categorizing things broadly into good vs. bad silos. You see, Jesus asks us to see the person for who they are to God—a broken child in need of love.
It is my prayer that none of us play the role of these townspeople that are so seized by fear that we can’t see Jesus and his purpose when it is right before us. May we not be too short-sighted to see God’s potential for someone other than ourselves.
Let’s conclude with the final scene of the story. The people ask Jesus to leave, so he gets into the boat—no coercion, no blame. He just honors them where they are. The healed man wanted to go with Jesus and his disciples. He has bonded with Jesus, being liberated by him. Maybe he was reluctant to go with the people who put him out of their midst long ago. Maybe he was afraid they wouldn’t receive him back into their fold. But Jesus, always an advocate for reconciliation, turns him towards his people and sends him home to share the good news. If they weren’t going to receive it from Jesus, perhaps they would from one of their own. So Jesus departs and we are told the man took that charge. Luke says he proclaims throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him. Mark’s account says he proclaimed it all throughout the whole Decapolis and people were amazed.
Through one life changed, many benefited. Many lives likely transformed.
Both individually and as a community we have great opportunity—and dare I say, great responsibility—to stand up against the demonic, oppressive forces in this world, particularly when it means for standing up for those who are powerless to do so themselves. Some in the category of oppressed might invoke fear in us. Some might make us feel uncomfortable. We might want to avert our eyes, keep them cast out among the tombs, so that we’re not inconvenienced. But if we do that, we are missing out on the opportunity to witness the beauty of God’s healing and restoration. And we might be robbing someone from experiencing it for themselves.
May we—the church—be a home for the afflicted and oppressed, that through us, they experience the power and liberation of God’s love and be made whole.
This post is taken from a sermon ny Kate Parker, preached at st. Andrew's Episcopal, Enicitas, CA on June 23, 2019. It can be found here.