Texts: Isaiah 65:1-9; Galatians 3:23-29; Luke 8:26-39
The first sign that anything unusual had happened was the cry of the swineherds running by shouting, “The pigs! The pigs! What? The pigs all drowned!” And from there the story unfolded. It was about that crazy demon-infested man who lived in the tombs and wore no clothes, and a visiting Jewish teacher who sent the demons into the pigs. What a crazy day!
There’s a literary theme that connects Isaiah to the Gospel today: swine-eating tomb-sitters. In Isaiah’s time they represented actual forms of worship in gentile communities around Israel. Isaiah used them to remind Israel that the essence of spiritual disorder and dysfunction is forgetting who God really is.
Isaiah 65 reflects on the human tendency to come up with divine beings (a god or many gods) that play to our own needs. This lets us off the hook of accountability to something greater than our own meaning and purpose. The result is that we settle for beliefs and lives that are smaller and less wonderful than what belief in God who is our infinite Source can provide.
Yet another literary theme intersects with Gospel’s image of the naked crazy man restrained with chains and shackles. In Galatians, Paul writes about the law operating as prison and guard until faith comes. Jesus restores relationship between us and God. Baptism is being set free from fear, washed clean, clothed with Jesus Christ.
Galatians 3 is the essence of Christ and Christianity in six verses. It says that the first guide to ethical human living (being accountable to neighbor and to God) came by way of the Ten Commandments. This external guide would later give way to an internal guide.
This elegantly simple set of the ten best ways of living later became a torturous list of over 600 rules. Do this! Don’t do that! Why? Because of our human capacity to imaginatively circumvent that beautiful rule of relationship. Remember Eve and Adam in the Garden? Or Jonah running away from God’s instruction to go to his enemy and tell them about God?
Our usual answer to a law being circumvented is to refine the law with greater detail. It happens all the time. The Jewish laws dealing with spiritual impurity are all about staying vigilant about things that lead us away from God’s singular rule. And doesn’t more law usually end up in more loss of human freedom and an inordinate amount of time, expense, and energy spent in enforcement?
God gave the commandments to humankind to regulate and guard us. The law was our pathfinder/guide (disciplinarian is not an accurate translation). When humankind was ready, God came in Jesus as pathfinder/guide. Jesus was a way better response than more law, right?
Readiness for Jesus seems to have been a matter of human development in an evolutionary sense. Only at a certain point in human development did we become aware of things beyond our own kinship groups. And able to critically understand the value of mutual concern and care.
Jesus embodied this way of accountability. He teaches us to look past our individual selves to God as Creator, our Source. From God we learn the interconnectedness of all things including the purpose and beauty of human community which Jesus came to embody. (Remember how he said that whatever we do to other people we do to him?)
Galatians reminds us that everyone who embodies Jesus has internalized this lesson and no longer needs the external law. A community of embodies Jesus (becomes the body of Jesus) to the world by living as Jesus lived by the Ten Commandments as internal guide. This is what it means to live by faith in Jesus Christ. (Abraham is the “ancient ancestor” of people who live by faith. So there is continuity of this teaching between Jewish and Christian scriptures.)
In a perfect spiritual world, this is how it all works. But the world is full of disruption and danger to people trying to live by faith. Here’s how the gospel of Luke talks about the struggle in the story of the community and the Gadarene man bound with chains and shackles. The unfortunately man was dangerous to himself and to the community. Jesus saved the Gadarene man and his community by restoring faith in God’s power.
On the surface Jesus was dealing with the spiritual problem of demon possession and a deep abyss where chaos always lurks. Then, as now, it’s a complex matter of our spiritual, and mental health.
But underneath may be a clever and somewhat dangerous critique of invasive and oppressive Roman forces. They presented a physical and a cultural threat to Jewish faith. It’s probably no coincidence that the Demon in the Gerasene man called itself Legion and chose to enter pigs rather than be cast out by Jesus. There was, in fact, at the time a Roman Legion north of Syria that had a wild pig as its emblem.
But let us not forget that Jesus’s first concern was with people in pain and trouble. Luke takes care to note that the Gerasene man was not abandoned when the demon was in him. (Out of kindness let’s not call him a demoniac because he is more than his demons, he is a human being.) The Garasene man was dangerous, yet the community did the best they could to care for him and keep themselves safe.
The gospel story ends with the Gerasene man clothed and sitting before Jesus, restored to community and relationship. We know because in his right mind, he sits at the feet of Jesus. It’s heartwarming that he asked to go with Jesus as a disciple.
Jesus had another job in mind though: stay in his own community and tell people about God. The man almost got it right. He told people about Jesus instead. Because in real time, that’s who he saw and felt. And that’s Luke’s point here too. Knowing God comes by way of meeting Jesus. And by faithfully embodying the story of Jesus, who knows how many others that man helped to meet Jesus?
We’ll always have demons, but we have baptism as our answer. It’s how we take on the person and life of Christ who was all about the ten best ways to live. Love God and love your neighbor. Following this one rule changes life for the better, which changes the world too. Amen.
The Rev. Beth Purdum Eden is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church. She has served in more than 6 parishes in the Western United States for 30 years.