Having a favorite Bible passage is as ill-advised as having a favorite child, but if I did have a favorite, this intriguing story would be a strong contender. It has everything: conflict, healing, payback, revelation, and even traveling pigs.
Read the scripture here.
Read the Working Preacher commentary.
The story unfolds like a movie, with Jesus venturing across to “the other side.” Cue the menacing music. The gospel writer piles up the strange and unfamiliar things. Gentiles. Tombs. Pigs. And this man, possessed by the demons, is on the edge of seeming human. He has no home, no clothes, and not even a name in the story. When Jesus asks his name, the demons speak up and answer for him. Perhaps he feels so dead inside that he feels most at home in the cemetery.
This man has another layer of oppression, too.
The story says that the man formerly lived in the town, and so the nearby town knows him well. Someone must slip food to this man. Someone must draw the boundary, so he knows not to venture into the village. Someone must re-shackle him when he breaks his chains. The town has learned to accommodate this man, learned to live with his illness, and grown accustomed to his suffering. Everyone around him is working to keep him where he is. No one seems to see a bigger, better possibility for him.
Jesus wages a battle here, showing us again that the power of God is greater than the powers of domination, or illness, or inhumanity. The power of God is greater than the label the town puts on this man, and greater than the divide between them. An exorcism demands power greater than the demon, and the spirits that torture this man know from the very beginning that Jesus brings that strength of spirit.
The spirits of illness recognize the power in Jesus, and open a negotiation. Ironically, they beg not to be thrown into the abyss, into complete darkness and chaos – the very place they have put this man. Seeming to agree, Jesus allows the spirits to enter the herd of pigs nearby. He tricks the tricky spirits, and they end up in the water, after all – the place of chaos in the ancient world.
Ironically, Jesus has power over the demons, but not over the people of the town. The now-healed man wants to follow Jesus, and Jesus instructs him to go to the village and tell them about the power of God at work. The word use is “proclaim” – this man is evangelist now. Just like the pigs, Jesus tricks the townspeople, too, leaving behind a reminder of their hard hearts…and the chance to be redeemed, when they’re ready. The movie ends, and we’re left hoping for the sequel, when the people of the town are ready to welcome Jesus back for their own healing.
The man in the tombs is so thoroughly possessed by the unclean spirits that they even answer the question about who he is. Is there something in our lives, or in our community, that has so thoroughly taken us over that it shapes our identity? Something that determines who we are, and separates us from God? It could be an addiction, or an attachment to a title or position. It could be hopelessness, or depression. In a church, it could be numbers, or finances.
When the man is healed, the people of the town are not overjoyed. They can’t be thankful that someone’s son and brother is tormented no more, or even selfishly relieved at not having to care for him anymore. The sermon might look at the places where we resist good news for other people because it means change for us. It can be in the wider world, where equality means less privilege for those of us who are accustomed to it. It can be in our own lives, as people grow healthy and need us less, or at the church, when things shift to make room for newer people with different needs.
Jesus turns this newly healed man into an evangelist in his town. The sermon might also look at the places where formerly broken people have a lot to teach us. We can learn from people who live with a mental illness, or who know what it’s like to be poor, or who are deep into a process of recovery.
Like Jesus in this story, where do we find God at work, healing broken people and sick systems? Where are your thoughts taking you this Sunday? We would love to hear, and to continue the conversation, in the comments section below.
Mary Austin is the Senior Pastor of Gaithersburg Presbyterian Church, where the members come from over 30 countries. She is a contributor to The Road to Hallelujah and is the author of Meeting God at the Mall. The image above is from Wikimedia Commons.