Luke 8: 26-39
a reflection by Dan Spragg
Sometimes I look at the text for the week and truly have to utter a very sarcastic ‘well, thanks for that!’ A story of demons and pigs… what are we to do with that? I remember when I was young my cousins had this computer game called ‘lemmings’ which was a puzzle strategy game which involved having to dig and create bridges and all sorts of things to allow the lemmings to get through the maze. The game has been acclaimed to be in the top 20% of video games of all time. It was quite addictive and I remember many hours spent trying to save the lemmings and get them through the mazes. Does anyone remember it? It frequently involved, if you didn’t get your strategy right, many lemmings disappearing into deep dark underground holes or walking off the edge of cliffs. When I read this story in Luke 8, that’s the picture I get, those little lemmings running off the edge of the cliff to their demise! They made such a sad little sound when they died.
There’s a few things that stand out to me about this story. The biggest thing that stands out to me is the contrast between how this man is before he encounters Jesus and how he is afterwards. A dramatic transformation occurs. Here’s a man, clearly disturbed on a number of levels. So disturbed that he has lost his ability to live as part of the community, instead finding himself without clothes and making his home among the graves. His disturbances run so deep that he needs to be restrained, most likely so that he didn’t hurt others or himself too I imagine. He is a tormented soul bound more so by darkness and chaos than the shackles and chains that were no match for his outbursts. And he meets Jesus who takes power and control of the situation and in the process is transformed into a human being again, someone in their right mind, clothed, seemingly at peace with the world sitting at Jesus’ feet. He is restored in both mind and dignity. This is a story of transformation from terror and chaos to order and peace.
It’s also a story of some larger symbolism at work. Here’s a couple of interesting things.
The exact location of the Gerasene’s land is debated but the most common assumption is that it is around 6 miles off the shore of the sea of Galilee. Jesus and his disciples were no longer in Jewish territory. The story goes that this was the location of where a number of years earlier the Roman Army had moved through the land obliterating anything that it came across. The city and the people of the region were utterly defeated and now, like the Jews, lived under the constant oppression of the Roman Empire. Here’s the interesting thing: ‘Legion’ is the name of one of the units in the Roman Army. Which we are told is the name of that which is tormenting this man. A legion in the Roman Army usually consisted of around 5000 soldiers. It was a powerful force that was not easily contained. Do you see the parallels here? The significance of Jesus confronting ‘legion’ is not lost on me. We could say from this, quite easily, that this story is saying that Jesus comes here, confronts and defeats the ‘legion’ which had brought torment and anguish, which results in healing and transformation. Jesus comes to this place that knows all too well the effects of a Roman Legion and demonstrates that there is indeed something more powerful with the ability to transform a life of torment and anguish to one of dignity and peace. The power of a Roman Legion is nothing compared to the power of God’s presence.
What’s fascinating is how the people responded. The news spread, people came to see for themselves… and were afraid. We would assume that they would respond with awe and wonder, delighting in this transformation which told them that there was hope for not only this man but for them all. But, no, they are afraid and they ask Jesus to leave. It’s quite sad really that they are so bound by their fear that they are unable to see any possibility beyond the oppression they live under. I can’t say what it is to live under constant fear and oppression because I live and I’ve lived a wonderfully free middle class life. But it does seem from others’ experience that living in long term situations of fear and oppression does limit one’s capacity to imagine anything else or hope for a better life let alone embrace something that comes along which is completely new and outside one’s normal existence. Perhaps any sort of ‘power’ that comes is seen as bad and to be feared because that has been their only experience. It reminds me of the Israelites after they have been brought out of slavery and are in that in-between space of the wilderness. ‘Perhaps it would be better if we had stayed in Egypt’ some of them said – despite what they knew that meant for them!
The transformed man wanted to be near Jesus and follow him with the others but Jesus says ‘no’ and sends him back to the city to ‘tell of what God has done for you.’ In the book of Acts, also written by Luke, we see the gradual spread of the good news out of Israel and into the surrounding Gentile areas. Perhaps this man, telling his story of the encounter with Jesus and what God had done, perhaps this would be the small, quiet beginning, sowing seeds that would be harvested a little later on when the good news came again.
Another interesting thing in this passage is that not long before this story Jesus had just selected and named his ‘twelve’. He’d been gathering and calling disciples for a while but not until recently had there been that group of twelve closest ones. Between this and when he sends them out to try this mission and ministry stuff for themselves they travel with him and observe. This is a time for them to observe, a time of watching and learning, an apprenticeship of sorts. Soon they’ll be sent to work on their own but first they must spend time watching and learning. There’s something for us in that. Do we watch and learn from Jesus? The word ‘disciple’ in Greek simply means learner, or student. Do we still consider ourselves as learners in the way of Jesus? Do we see ourselves as apprentices, watching and learning so that we can better join in the work of God in the world?
Out of these things I believe there are some good takeaways for us. Firstly, we can trust in the love, compassion and power of God to be effective, even against the ‘legions’ of chaos, torment, anguish, darkness and fear – we can trust that in time Goodness will prevail. Secondly, occasionally in our communities we see and come into contact with people who live under the effects of long term ‘occupation’ and ‘oppression’. Those who are disturbed by mental conditions and the repeated circumstances of abuse, poverty, or having to live on the ‘outside’ of society. Sometimes it’s easier to keep them where they are rather than look for transformation – like the people of Gerasene – it’s easier to live with and contain at arms length the madness, the unusual behaviour, than work for what it might look like for them to be transformed and live as one of us. Sometimes our society needs scapegoats – the unemployed, the weirdos, it’s easier to blame them for their own situations and the problems that arise as opposed to acknowledging that the rest of us are connected to them and are culpable by the actions of the society we participate in.
As we are invited to Christ’s table this morning, let us take the moment to:
- Acknowledge again and remember the power of God’s way to bring life from death, order and peace from chaos and destruction.
- Trust in God’s presence to be in it for the long haul and trust in the power of personal testimony – trust that God can be at work, one heart, mind and life at a time.
- Ask, ‘what do we still need to learn from Jesus?’ and adopt continually the apprentice posture – watching and sitting with the master – and as the stories to come soon in Luke’s gospel show, like those early disciples, being willing to get to work and try things when we are invited to join in the work of God’s good news.