Sunday, June 23, 2013

23 June 2013 -- 5 Pentecost / Proper 7

5 Pentecost / Proper 7 — 23 June 2013
St. Luke’s, Cedar Falls – 9:15 am

[Track 2]  Isaiah 60:1-9  |  Psalm 22:18-27  |  Galatians 3:23-29  |  Luke 8:26-39

Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?”  He said, “Legion”: for many demons had entered him.

The story of the exorcism of the Geresene demoniac …

(Don’t you just love the way we can turn relatively simple stories into obscure churchy language?  It’s worse than particle physics!)

The story of the exorcism of the Geresene demoniac is to my mind one of the niftiest stories in the Gospels, and the odd thing is that we seem never to have read it at the Sunday Eucharist.  Actually, in the previous 1979 lectionary Mark’s version of this story was appointed in Year B, but it was listed in parentheses following the previous verses, which recount the stilling of the storm on the Sea of Galilee.  The parentheses meant you could leave this story out, and since it’s a bit long, as I recall we often did.   In the Revised Common Lectionary we now get Luke’s version every three years.  Good.  They got that one right.

And this is an important story.  Matthew, Mark, and Luke all think it’s important, which is why they included it in their Gospels.  I have no idea why the Western Church has apparently not read it at the Sunday Eucharist for at least a millennium.

The story was originally Mark’s.  Luke tells the same story, as we heard it just now, though in a somewhat less wordy version.  Matthew’s version is even more abridged and edited.  (Matthew and Luke got it from Mark, of course, who was an important source for both of them.  However, they often handle Mark’s material in somewhat different ways, as they have their own narrative strategies they are working with.  The Gospels – all four of them – are not just collections of Jesus-stories, they are careful literary-historical constructs.)

Anyway, Jesus and his disciples cross the Sea of Galilee to the east side, “opposite Galilee.”  This was actually predominantly Gentile territory, what was called in Greek the “Decapolis” (Ten Cities), and it was heavily Romanized.  So this was one of the apparently very few occasions when Jesus went into a mostly non-Jewish area.  This is significant for Luke, who, as you know, was very interested in the early Church’s mission to the Gentiles and its previews in the ministry of Jesus himself.

We’re not really sure exactly where this place was.  The city of Geresa, one of the cities of the Decapolis, was actually not very close to the Sea of Galilee, and the texts of the early manuscripts of the synoptic Gospels disagree vigorously about whether this was the country of the Gerasenes, the Gadarenes, or the Gergesenes.   This is the kind of thing that is good for a master’s thesis in New Testament studies, if perhaps not a doctoral dissertation.  For our purposes, It Does Not Matter.  You do not need to take notes.  There will not be a quiz.

So Jesus encounters this poor fellow who is afflicted by a very serious psychiatric disorder.  The first-century edition of the DSM (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) identified this as “possessed by demons.”  Evidently the poor guy runs around naked (a very un-Jewish thing to do, even for crazy people) and he lives among the tombs (which for Jews were ritually unclean and to be avoided unless strictly necessary) and nobody can successfully control him.  So this poor fellow throws himself down before Jesus and addresses him as “Son of the Most High God.”  We may not particularly notice that, but Mark and Luke mean us to notice it.  The phrase “Most High God” or “God Most High” (El Elyon in Hebrew) is very rare in the New Testament, and not very common in the Old.  It is typically the way the God of Israel (of the Hebrews, of the Jews) is spoken of by pagans.  So I think Mark and Luke mean us to identify this poor fellow as a Gentile.  But note also that this Gentile recognizes who Jesus is.

When Jesus asks the man his name, he shouts back (in Mark), “My name is Legion; for we are many.”  Well, that’s cute, we may say.  “Legion – many – ha ha.”  But particularly in this context, “legion” is not just a play on words meaning “a lot of folks.”  It’s a very specific word.  It literally means the Roman army.

The significance of this may be a bit clearer when we recall that this story was first told, at least in written form, by Mark.  And although there remains scholarly disagreement about this, I am inclined to believe that Mark’s Gospel was written shortly before the fall of Jerusalem, during the Jewish War of rebellion; and that Mark’s community may well have been in northern Palestine or southern Syria.  In other words, a “Legion” was very much a harsh and oppressive present reality to Mark’s community as the Roman Army swept south toward Jerusalem.  And although Mark, like Luke following him, was very much interested in telling about the healing power of Jesus to expel demons, Mark’s subtext may very well have included trust in God’s ultimate power even over the Roman Empire.  As the Psalm says today, “Kingship belongs to the Lord; he rules over the nations.”  [Ps. 22:27]

Well, what do you do with a legion of demons when you expel them?  They have to go somewhere, don’t they?  Those of us who have lived in Iowa for much if not all of our lives may be relatively kindly disposed to the raising of hogs.  Some of you may have first-hand experience with pork production.  Did any of you raise a piglet for 4-H?  So why is Jesus picking on the herd of swine?  But remember that Jesus was a Jew, for whom pigs were unclean animals.  (After all, this was Gentile territory.  There was presumably no hog raising in Galilee or Judea.)  Jesus’ Jewish followers would not have seen any ethical problem with the destruction of a herd of pigs.  (Remember what Isaiah said this morning about people “who sit inside tombs, and spend the night in secret places; who eat swine’s flesh…; who say ‘Keep to yourself, do not come near me.’”)  [Isaiah 65:4]  But now this poor man had been freed of his demons; the demons got just what they requested, though they ended up in the abyss after all.  (Arguably that was their own fault, not Jesus’.)  That’s what happens when evil gets its own way.  Evil is ultimately self-destructive.  Jesus has outsmarted the devil once more.

And perhaps that’s what we can take away from this Gospel today.  The Roman Legions are not an issue for us – although there are many other legions around us, some of which are for our defense but some of which are threats to us.  And most of us probably regard pork production as a good thing, unless we happen to live downwind from a hog confinement operation.  (The state tries to regulate this somewhat, but I remember years ago in rural Nebraska when I was driving between my churches I had to pass an operation that really peeled the paint off my car!)  

The Gospel of Jesus Christ is the good news of God’s power of liberation – political, medical, psychological, spiritual – from all the many ways we can be bound.  Good news for all people – “Jews or Gentiles, bond or free, male and female” [Galatians 3:28] – and it remains our mission and vocation to go and proclaim to the world how much God has done for us.

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