Come to the Opposite Side
A well-known speaker started his seminar by holding up a $20 bill. In the room of 200, he asked, “Who would like this $20 bill?” Hands started going up. He said, “I am going to give this $20 to one of you but first, let me do this.” He proceeded to crumple the $20 dollar bill up. He then asked, “Who still wants it?” Still the hands were up in the air. “Well,” he replied, “What if I do this?” And he dropped it on the ground and started to grind it into the floor with his shoe. He picked it up, now all crumpled and dirty. “Now who still wants it?” Every hand still went into the air.
“My friends, you have all learned a very valuable lesson. No matter what I did to the money, you still wanted it because it did not decrease in value. It was still worth $20. Many times in our lives, we are dropped, crumpled, and ground into the dirt by the decisions we make and the circumstances that come our way. We feel as though we are worthless. But no matter what has happened or what will happen, you will never lose your value in God’s eyes. To God, dirty or clean, crumpled or finely creased, you are still priceless and treasured.”
Today, we see Jesus on the fringes of society, on the edges of what is clean and unclean, on the boundaries of love and fear, on the opposite side. This is the only story in all of Luke’s Gospel where Jesus goes to the margins to show the work of God and reveal the good news of inclusion and healing to those who have been hurt by the dominant powers of the day. Jesus was out beyond the boundaries, out in Gentile territory where there were pigs, as pigs were considered unclean animals in Jewish culture. And there he met a tormented, demon-possessed man, a man who had been shoved out of his community and pushed out to the fringes of society. From this, we begin to see that this is a strange and weird story, a story with a setting unfamiliar to us. How can we relate to this odd tale?
Duke Professor, Dr. Will Willimon says, “The story is thus a challenge to our presence in the quiet, serene stability that is your church and mine on Sunday. For one thing, it is a very strange story that has caused consternation and comment from the very first – the crazy, raving man, shouting, naked, bound in chains; the presence of the pigs, the screaming demons, the death of the pigs. It is a strange story. It is a story about Jesus, about Jesus entering into the strange and the uncontrollable, about Jesus exercising healing and creative power over a chaotic situation. Thus, today’s Gospel beckons us out beyond our serene stability, out where people scream out in pain and demons of the body and the mind do their demonic worst and where strange, inexplicable, uncontainable things happen. And that’s where Jesus is and that’s where we must go today if we are to be with him.”
Larry Hollar, an organizer for Bread for the World, believes, too, that “Luke’s story of the Gerasene demoniac is one of the strangest in all of the Gospels. But if you live in a major U.S. city, you will encounter people on the streets who seem as troubled and troubling as the demoniac (demon-possessed man). Their demons – alcoholism, drugs, mental illness, abuse, poverty, homelessness – are legion. There are no convenient swine feeding nearby which these modern-day demons can easily escape. But there are compassionate people and programs that seek ways to connect with oppressed souls in our midst. Jesus, rather than focusing on the terror of the demoniac’s past, instead commissions the newly freed man to testify about the saving role of Jesus’ interventions. The soundest advice the story offers to those of us who can’t easily cast out demons is this: to follow Jesus we must go into the surrounding places and tell about the ways that troubled people are given help and support as they work to turn their lives around, to overcome the fear and prejudice that haunt us all. Church and government can help address the illnesses that are personal and those that are societal and structural. This is indeed Good News.”
The beginning of this lectionary passage clues us in that this will be a text where Jesus tests the limits of boundaries, where Jesus will encounter people and places totally opposite of his own social experience and religious faith. Did you hear it? “Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is OPPOSITE of Galilee.” The place where Jesus went on this phase of his ministry journey was completely opposite of anything Jesus and his followers knew. The demon-possessed man that Jesus met was in every way opposite of Jesus and in every way an unclean person. Prominent author and theologian, Dr. Elaine Heath, agrees. She says, “Driven by a legion of demonic forces, the man is scarcely human anymore. He lives in the tombs among the dead. He is naked, unpredictable, violent, and alone. He is also a Gentile; thus the phrase, ‘opposite Galilee’ refers to much more than geography. It also suggests many ways in which Jesus intentionally ‘steps out’ to confront what is ‘opposite’ in life. This is a Christological narrative demonstrating that no one is beyond the reach of Christ’s redeeming, healing love.”
And we can see how totally opposite this Gerasene man was. He lived in a tomb instead of a house. He was naked rather than clothed. He was possessed instead of in his right mind. He communed with the pigs rather than living with the citizens in community. He was wild rather than calm and collected. The Gerasene man was everything that was opposite about the world in which Jesus lived. But most of all, this man lived in the tombs, the graveyard, a place of uncleanness as it was a place filled with decomposition, death, and disease. He was plagued, not only be internal demons of anger and fear, but outside demons of rejection and isolation. So, not only was the Gerasene man living physically alone in the tombs without community and without companionship, he was also living in his own mental tomb of despair and isolation and illness, ignored and shut out from the healing help of community. The Gerasene man was trapped in the tombs of his own mind and in the graves of societal rejection. And because he was on the fringes of his community with no help or relief, everything about his life, his fears, and his depression, and his loneliness, and his hurt felt “legion,” felt overwhelming. He had nowhere to turn but to the complete fringes and margins of society where he could suffer alone.
But it is clear that from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, God wanted the boundaries of the world expanded so that all people could experience acceptance, love, and healing. We’ve seen already as we’ve explored the Book of Acts that true disciples of Jesus would be sent as witnesses “in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” It seems that Jesus was showing his followers that no one is outside the reach of God’s saving love. The disciples were, and so must we be, sent out by the power of Jesus into the far reaches of the world, going beyond all barriers we have built around each other.
We see in this isolated and outside event of Jesus’ ministry in Luke that Jesus not only healed the man in mind and body, but liberated him in a way where he could be accepted back into his family and local community. Dr. Heath reinforces this healing of the man by saying that the man was not only healed, but saved. She says, “Salvation is holistic, bringing life to body, mind, spirit, and relationships. In a final demonstration of healing love, Jesus sends the nameless man home, where he becomes the first missionary to the Gentiles.”
But we see that this new Gerasene missionary, the previously-possessed man, is going to have a hard time revealing the saving power and purpose of Jesus. Did you see how the swineherds, those that watched over the pigs, and the rest of the Gerasene people responded to the newly cleaned man and the saving work of Christ? Yup, they were angry and afraid. Not only was someone who was pushed to the outside of society (for good reason) brought back into the circle by Jesus, the livelihood of the swineherds, the pigs, were destroyed and thrown into the depths of the sea, the place known in Jewish culture as the abyss where monsters and evils go to die. These Gerasene swineherds saw their pigs, their livelihood, their financial lives driven into the sea, into oblivion. So, of course they were afraid of and mad at Jesus!
But Jesus, in order to include the most outside and marginalized person, had to disrupt and flip on its head the economic and social constructs of the day. And if we notice this aspect of the text, we must realize that Jesus’ good news, the coming of Christ’s gospel of inclusion and love, brought upheaval to the way things were and had been. And that the good news would not seem good to everyone. Those that profited off of this man’s illness and the hurtful structures of the day would need to push through their fears of losing their power and know that all people need community, love, acceptance, and inclusion. Experiencing Jesus’ salvation changes everything.
And the interesting thing is, I think we can see ourselves in all of the characters of this story. We feel as if we are the outsiders, those on the margins with the voices of bitterness and rejection shouting in our heads. We hear the negative voices raging at us from inside our spirits and also from outside when we think people despise us because we don’t measure up. And those voices push us to places of loneliness and isolation. We are trapped in the tombs of our physical and emotional pains. We are crumbling under brokenness and despair. And it is in these times that we need to invite the salvation of God into our lives, freeing us from the prisons we have built up around ourselves. We need to lean into our baptisms that tell us that we might have been buried and covered and drowned before, but now we are being made new again and raised to vibrant life. That is our identity as children of God. We are to throw off the shackles that bind us and hinder us. We need to clothe ourselves in the good news of Jesus, sit at his feet, and know that we have a new home with all of God’s people.
We can also place ourselves in the shoes of the swineherds. These swineherds tried to keep the demon-possessed man bound up and out of sight. They placed him at the edge of society to be forgotten and ignored. As long as our pig herds are fine and we don’t have to see the homeless person, the troubled person, the person with a disability, the angry person, the different person, then we can go about our business and live our lives. And that is why it is important that the demon-possessed, the other, doesn’t leave us be. Dr. David Lose says, “If the man were to leave, how easy it would be for his neighbors to revert to the status quo. With him constantly among them, renewed in mind, body, and spirit, they must reckon with God’s determined action for health and life.” We, too, must reckon with the action of Jesus and see the value in all people, regardless of their ailment, and know they are children of God. And it might make us afraid and make us uncomfortable, but in the end, Jesus wants all people to be in community, in which we all care for each other, even the outsider and the outcast and the opposite.
And I also believe that we can place ourselves as the disciples who followed Jesus to the edge, to the fringes of society. It is our job as followers of Christ to see that Jesus disrupts the social order of the day, revealing that everyone is equally loved and equally included. Jesus broke into a system where everyone had a place, the disciples, the swineherds, the demon-possessed… everyone! Yet, everyone, including the disciples, were shocked when the previously demon-possessed man returned to Jesus in his right mind and fully clothed in the spirit of God. The “other” was now just like the disciples. The “other” was now like them. The “other” was now included. When Jesus intervenes and brings health to a community, suddenly all people have a place and all people have a part to play in bringing the reign of God, the good news to the world. The disciples realized that the borders of God’s love were broader and farther than they ever imagined.
It is said that during the Second World War some soldiers serving in France wanted to bury a friend and fellow soldier who had been killed. Being in a foreign country they wanted to ensure their fallen comrade had a proper burial. They found a well-kept cemetery with a low stone wall around it, a picturesque little Catholic church and a peaceful setting. This was just the place to bury their friend. But when they approached the priest, he answered that unless their friend was a baptized Catholic he could not be buried in the cemetery. The friend wasn’t Catholic. Sensing the soldiers’ disappointment, the priest showed them a spot outside the walls where they could bury their friend. Reluctantly they did so.
The next day the soldiers returned to pay their final respects to their fallen friend but could not find the grave. “Surely we can’t be mistaken,” they said. “It was right here!” Confused, they approached the priest who took them to a spot inside the cemetery walls. “Last night I couldn’t sleep,” said the priest. “I was troubled that your friend had to be buried outside the cemetery walls, so I got up and moved the fence.”
As we follow the saving Jesus out to the edges of society, what would the world look like if the places we consider outside and opposite were no longer on the outside, but instead inside the life and love of the divine? What if we took the Holy Spirit seriously and went out to the absolute ends of the earth to bring all into the circle of Christ? What a world we would see, what a world where all people would be clothed, in their right minds, fed, included, and at home. What would it look like for you, this week, to go to the “opposite side” with Jesus?