A Sermon by
University Presbyterian Church
Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time June 24, 2007
As the horrible tragedy in
In the meantime, the young man came dashing toward the church. Our preschool director, having heard the screams and seeing the man approaching, locked the door. But he ran toward the door and took a dive and a tumble through its glass top. I went running out to see if the man was hurt and to see if I could help calm him down a bit. But he was bleeding profusely and was shouting loudly that he was Jesus and had a bomb in his mouth. In those days, the probability of that being true seemed less than it might today, but it was unnerving nonetheless. He then stripped off his clothing and stood naked in the hallway of the church, screaming at the top of his voice.
It was just a few minutes later that the police chief arrived, though I didn’t know that was who he was at the time. His name was Reuben Greenberg, an African-American Orthodox Jew, and, I would come to learn, a legend in his own time in
The first thing I noticed this time in reading Luke’s story of the Gerasene demoniac was the way Jesus asked him his name. “What is your name?” he asked, building a bridge across the chasm between them.
I imagine it had been a long time since anyone had asked the man his name. To most people, he was just the crazy guy in the tombs. His mental illness could flare at times – when the voices summoned the rage from somewhere deep inside him, and then he was uncontrollable. Fortunately, in those times he mostly fled into the wilderness and posed little threat. But the townspeople still kept their distance… the way, say, people do today when some person, obviously disturbed, is on the street.
But Jesus was not like the others, and when this man approached him, he didn’t cross to the other side. It is one of the peculiarities of Luke’s Gospel that while the religious authorities are always asking about Jesus, “Who is this?” the demons know him right away. And so, as soon as Jesus is off the boat, he is greeted by this naked man, obviously disturbed. Jesus commands the demons to come out of the man, who then fell down before him and shouted at him, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me.” And Jesus asks his name. The man doesn’t give a name, exactly, but more a term connoting a Roman military regiment. “My name is Legion,” he says, naming the myriad forces that terrorized him and robbed him of his true identity. “He had lost his name. He had lost his individuality. All that was left was a boiling struggle of conflicting forces. It was as though a Roman legion was at war within him.”
But Jesus asked him his name. Then he healed him… only it is a curious healing, because the healing involves a third party… of sorts. Jesus heals the man by letting the demons go from the man and enter a herd of swine that was feeding nearby. Now themselves possessed, the swine stampede down the hillside into the lake and are drowned. And the man is relieved of his torment, set free from the voices that had so long taunted and plagued him.
The Gospel clearly tells this story to highlight the healing power of Jesus. But it does not shy away from reporting the fall-out from this miracle… the collateral damage, if you will. In case that collateral damage is not plain to you, let we simply say that this probably is not the best text to choose for the opening devotional at the annual meeting of PETA or any other animal rights organization. A whole herd of pigs is destroyed in the healing. It may not have seemed such a big thing to Jewish hearers of the story, for the pigs were unclean animals to them, but to the swineherds and those in the Gentile land where the healing occurred, it was a very big deal indeed. Having witnessed what happened, the swineherds rushed to tell the villagers what they had seen, and though we don’t know what they said exactly, their reports apparently caused as big a splash as the pigs themselves. For there was a significant economic loss involved in this healing, which caused the local citizenry to calculate the power of the Gospel against economic measurements.
Then, says Luke, the townspeople came out and found the man from whom the demons had gone out sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid, he said. Why afraid? Well, surely part of the fear was evoked by the exorcism itself and its revelation of numinous power, power greater even than the power of evil spirits. In the presence of such power, one might expect an outburst of great joy, but fear is also a reasonable response. Says Fred Craddock,
In the case of the… demoniac, the people knew the locus of the evil, knew where the man lived, and devoted considerable time and expense trying to guard and to control him (v. 29). A community thus learns to live with demonic forces, isolating and partially controlling them… But now the power of God for good comes to their community and it disturbs a way of life they had come to accept. Even when it is for good, power that can neither be calculated nor managed is frightening. What will God do next in our community? People who understand this fear are best prepared to understand the running fear created by Easter.
Part of the fear is awe and the question of what comes next. But another part of the fear, commentators argue, is economic. The townspeople calculated the further collateral damage that might occur if Jesus were to stay among them… and they asked him to leave. Says Craddock, “It remains the case to this day that a community becomes very much involved when the impact of Jesus Christ affects the economy…. The Gerasene people are not praising God that a man is healed; they are counting the cost and finding it too much.” The apostle Paul would later experience in Philippi and
The townspeople are not evil. They are afraid, and their fear is rooted in their wallets and pocketbooks. As Ted Wardlaw says of the healing, “Somebody’s assets are sharply reduced by all of this, and maybe the community is wondering if they can afford many other random acts of kindness. They have come to terms with the demons rattling around in that man. They have put into the county budget a line item that pays the salaries of the security guards and covers the cost of the chains that have kept this man at bay. They have learned to manage the demonic in their midst; and so they are not sure they like how the impact of Jesus Christ will affect their economy.” Jesus’ way of putting people before property values is a bit unsettling, if you think about it. He causes us to rethink the assumptions we live by, maybe even the demons that we battle in our own lives, and that can be surprisingly uncomfortable.
Yale law professor Stephen Carter, in his public speaking, from time to time addresses the topic, “The Most Dangerous Children in
Then he tells the second story… about a ride on a commuter line between his home in
Then Stephen Carter asks the question: which of these two groups of children is the most dangerous – the gang members or the private school girls? The answer is not as obvious as it seems, he argues. The gang members are closed in by their neighborhoods and are likely to be dead or in jail before long. But the girls on the train will attend the best universities in the land. They will go on to important careers where they will make decisions that affect many other people. In the long run, says Carter, the words they speak and the attitudes behind them may end up being more lethal than the gang’s bullets.
Well, I don’t know. But this much I do know: in the end, it is always easier to perceive the demons that possess others than the demons that inhabit our own assumptions. And maybe that’s the heart of the reason for the fear in this story Luke’s Gospel reports: that if Jesus goes messing with other people’s demons, the ones we seem to manage so well with our wallets and our convictions, the collateral damage may ultimately involve something that is precious to us… and that we may find our lives transformed, too.
So we might have to ask him to leave. There is a risk if we let him stay, to be sure, if we listen to him and baptize our babies in his name. It may cost more than we want to spend to follow this Jesus.
Or maybe not. Maybe in the light of his power to heal, or in response to his willingness to call out to the troubled by name, we will hear him also calling out to us, inviting us to be healed, too… and inviting us to a new way of seeing the world. It is a way in which people are more important than purse strings, in which wholeness and healing and hospitality are the hallmarks of shared community, in which grace is the first and final word. Maybe there’s enough hope and promise in such a possibility that we would be willing to risk it. Maybe.
 R. Alan Culpeper, “Luke,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible: Vol. IX, Luke, John,
 Sharon H. Ringe, Luke:
 Ted Wardlaw, in a paper on this text presented to the January 2008 meeting of the Moveable Feast in
 Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke ((I-IX), The Anchor Bible, Garden City: Doubleday, 1981, 740. Cf. also R. Alan Culpepper, New Interpreter’s Bible IX: Luke,
 Fred B. Craddock, Luke, Interpretation Commentary,
 Wardlaw. I am grateful also to Wardlaw for the Stephen Carter story that follows and for the impetus to my final conclusion.
 Stephen Carter, The Culture of Disbelief,